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The crisis in careers guidance

16 Jul 2012

As part of the 'Creating a world-class school system for England' project, IPPR asked leading academic Professor Tony Watts to look at the urgent issue of careers guidance. In this short paper, he outlines the problems facing the system.

These are tough times for young people. Massive youth unemployment caused by the extended economic slump means that many young people are finding it difficult to find jobs that meet their aspirations, or even jobs of any kind. This is coinciding with huge and often ill-understood changes in higher education funding. Finding their way through the choices that face them is becoming more and more difficult for young people, and particularly so for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds who lack access to networks of contacts and support. ...


Yet the Coalition government has chosen this time to strip out most of the career guidance services designed to help young people in these respects.

Career guidance is a public as well as a private good. If people make choices about learning and work which are well informed and well thought through, the learning and labour markets are likely to work more effectively. If people find opportunities suited to their talents, motivations and aspirations, they are likely to be more satisfied and more productive, and there are likely to be fewer drop-outs. Career guidance can also contribute to social inclusion and social mobility.

The Browne report (on which the Coalition government’s higher education funding reforms are significantly based) was clear about what was needed. It recommended that every school should be ‘required to make individualised careers advice available to its pupils … delivered by certified careers professionals who are well informed, benefit from continued training and professional development and whose status in schools is respected and valued’. The government has indeed supported the moves to develop a stronger careers profession. Unfortunately, however, the effects of its other policies have been not to strengthen but rather to demolish the existing infrastructure of professional career guidance provision for young people.

The early signs were promising. The responsible minister, John Hayes, announced the government’s intention to establish an all-age careers service in England (as already exists in the rest of the UK), which would integrate the best of the existing Connexions and Next Step services (for young people and adults respectively). He also announced that the government would ‘safeguard the partnership model in which schools draw on their knowledge of pupils’ needs and work closely with external independent advisers with expert knowledge and skills’. The assumption was that the Connexions funding (around £200 million) would be transferred into the new all-age National Careers Service (NCS).

None of this has happened. Instead, under the new Education Act, schools now have a statutory duty to secure access to independent and impartial careers guidance for their pupils in years 9–11 (likely to be extended down to year 8 and up to years 12–13). But although the services provided to adults by the National Careers Service will include face-to-face services, its services for young people will be limited to web and telephone-based services. Schools can purchase face-to-face and other services from NCS providers, but not as part of the NCS; alternatively, they can use other providers, or can choose to make their own provision in-house. This effectively transforms the partnership model into a contractor-supplier relationship. It means that England is moving from the partnership model to a school-based guidance system.

Yet international studies demonstrate clearly that this is a weaker model.In contrast with the partnership model, school-based guidance systems tend to have weak links with the labour market, to view educational choices as ends in themselves rather than as career choices, to lack impartiality (promoting their own provision rather than college- or work-based routes), and to be patchy in extent and quality.

More specifically, two countries – the Netherlands and New Zealand – have done much the same as England is now doing: abandoning the partnership model in favour of school commissioning. In both cases, the outcome was a significant reduction in the extent of career guidance provision and also in its quality (including its impartiality).

But in both of these countries, the relevant funding was transferred to the schools. This is not the case here. The £200 million in funding for career guidance has not been transferred from Connexions to schools: it has been allowed to disappear. So has the funding for education-business partnerships (which have supported work-experience programmes) and Aim Higher programmes. Schools are now expected to fund any services of these kinds from their existing budgets.

It seems highly likely, therefore, that the erosion of careers services which took place in the Netherlands and New Zealand will be substantially greater in England. Some schools will provide a reasonable programme because their senior management teams regard it as important. But many, facing other budgetary pressures, will not. Few are likely to offer a programme comparable in extent or quality to that offered in the recent past.

These problems have been exacerbated by the lack of an effective transition plan. The result is that, all over the country, Connexions careers advisers have been made redundant. Some are trying to sell services to schools; a few are finding posts within schools. But it seems likely that many are leaving the profession. Their expertise will be lost.

Alongside this, the existing statutory duty for schools to provide careers education programmes has been withdrawn. Such programmes are the essential complement to career guidance provision, helping pupils to develop their career management skills and thereby to play an active role in the career guidance process. The government’s rationale for removing the duty is to reduce prescription to schools. But the message to schools is that careers education is not viewed as important.

There are a few hopeful signs. With government support, the various existing careers professional associations are merging into a new Career Development Institute to integrate and improve professional standards for the field, including a register of qualified practitioners. This is complemented by the revised Matrix organisational standard for career guidance providers. The government has also supported Careers England to develop a new overarching ‘Quality in Careers’ standard, to offer national validation of the existing range of voluntary quality awards for schools, colleges and work-based learning providers that wish to affirm their organisational support for careers provision.

Alongside the government’s statutory guidance to schools, this could provide a robust quality infrastructure on which good practice could be built. But the guidance is weak, stopping short of requiring schools to adopt these standards. The other claimed accountability measures – Ofsted inspections and a new pupil destinations measure – are also weak. Schools which wish to do little or nothing of substance will be able to get away with it.

It is deeply ironic that all this has occurred under a government which has publicly espoused the importance of career guidance, and which raised such high hopes. In effect, the cloak provided by the statutory duty on schools and the new National Careers Service has provided an illusion of constructive action, concealing the wholesale removal of Department for Education funding and the likely ensuing outcome – the widespread erosion of help for young people. Yet all this is occurring at a time of massive youth unemployment and radical change in higher education, making the need for such help even greater than in the past.

Professor Tony Watts is an international policy consultant on career guidance and career development and has published widely on these subjects. He is a founding fellow and life president of the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, visiting professor of career development at the University of Derby and visiting professor at Canterbury Christ Church University. He has lectured in over 60 countries, and has carried out many comparative studies of guidance systems around the world for OECD, the European Commission, UNESCO and the World Bank.


Andy Burnham MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, talks to IPPR


David Lammy MP on jobs and skills for a new generation


Quality teaching: what can policy do?

08 Sep 2011

Exactly one year ago, Michael Gove gave a speech at Westminster Academy setting out his plans for reforming the teaching profession. He argued that “we need to act because not enough good people are coming to teaching, or staying in teaching”.

His speech was followed by a raft of policies, which included: raising the bar for entry to teacher training to a 2:2 degree; moving teacher training from universities into schools; abolishing the General Teaching Council for England; expanding Teach First and Teach Next; and making it easier for head teachers to remove poor performing teachers.

To mark the anniversary of this speech, IPPR invited an expert panel to debate whether the government’s proposals will lead to quality teaching. The event was chaired by Jessica Shepherd, Education Correspondent at The Guardian, and the panellists were:

  • Dylan Wiliam, Emeritus Professor at the Institute of Education and Presenter of BBC2’s The Classroom Experiment
  • Brian Lightman, General Secretary, Association of School and College Leaders
  • Stephen Munday, Headteacher of Comberton Village College, a newly designated ‘Teaching School’. 

Speaking in front of a packed audience of teachers, researchers and policy makers, there was wide spread support for the government’s focus on the importance of teaching. Dylan Wiliam pointed to research showing that the best teachers are four times more effective than the worst ones – what a child would learn in six months with one teacher might take two years in a different classroom.

But there was less agreement that new government policies will bring about a big improvement in teaching. The effect of removing poor performing teachers will be too small to have an impact on the whole system and there is no research showing that somebody with a second class degree will make a better teacher than someone with a third class degree. Instead of focusing on the recruitment and selection of new teachers, we should ‘learn to love the ones we’ve got’. A more promising approach would be to reform professional development: placing teachers into supportive teams; requiring them to demonstrate they have improved; breaking down the barriers between initial training and qualified teacher status; and using research to inform practice.

There was more support for moving teacher training into schools, since they are the places with the most up-to-date practice and expertise. Stephen Munday saw the introduction of ‘Teaching Schools’ as an evolution of the role schools already play in initial teacher training and professional development, rather than a radical departure from the status quo. However he cautioned that they would need to be properly funded, and admitted it was a risk keeping advanced teachers free to train others, when it was not clear how their time would be paid for.    

Brian Lightman argued that the government’s focus on structural change was a distraction from the more important issue of teaching and learning. This was supported by evidence from other countries, where ‘free schools’ in Sweden and Charter Schools in the US have had little impact on attainment. Dylan Wiliam cited research from Standford University showing that the net effect of Charter schools has actually been to lower standards in the US.

None of the panellists mourned the loss of local authority influence over teaching standards, believing that schools were better placed than local authority advisory teachers to carry out this function. There was more concern that weaker local authorities meant there was no strategic planning of the school system, with schools opening in areas that didn’t need them and vulnerable students ‘falling in between the cracks’.

Speaking from the audience, John Bangs - former Head of Education at the NUT – asked whether it was right to abolish the GTCE. While on one hand the government want teaching to be a high skill profession, on the other hand they are removing its professional body. Brian Lightman responded that while there were weaknesses with the GTCE, it should have been reformed not abolished. He expressed concern at what would happen to many of its functions such as professional conduct hearings and gathering data on the profession.   

The broadest agreement was saved for Brian Lightman’s claim that ‘policies on their own won’t change anything’ – the key will be in how schools implement them. Schools have enormous power to shape the system and it is not always as simple as blaming or changing policy.

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Dylan Wiliam on the key to ‘world class schools’


Andreas Schleicher speaks at IPPR

07 Mar 2011

Andreas SchleicherOn 7 March 2011, ippr welcomed Andreas Schleicher – the man behind the international school rankings – to address an expert audience. He explained the key ingredients for a successful education system, and how England can raise its game. Pointing to top-performing countries such as Korea and Finland, Schleicher showed what improvements are possible across a school system. Critical of the media hysteria generated by international assessments, he urged for them to be used in a more thoughtful way.

Andreas Schleicher on school standards