Perverse incentives

Since the universal Careers Service was established in the Employment and Training Act (1973), successive governments’ policies on careers advice have undergone several reforms. Fundamental to each has been the ambition to overcome the divide between academic and vocational education, dispelling the myth that academic education is suitable for all.

The basic model of provision has remained the same throughout the years: young people in schools have accessed their careers advice from an external service working in partnership with their school.

The most controversial reform was the withdrawal of this external service, devolving the responsibility to ensure that young people had access to careers advice to schools, in the Education Act (2011). This meant schools making their own arrangements for careers advice, paying for the service from their existing budgets.

However, many – including the then Chair of the Education Select Committee, Graham Stuart MP – argued that schools did not have enough of an incentive to take the statutory obligation imposed upon them seriously enough. This posed serious questions around the accountability regime that the new model had created, as well as the perverse incentives injected into schools that wanted to retain students for their own Sixth Forms.

The further education (FE) sector argued that without sufficient incentives in place, such as a downgrade on a school’s Ofsted rating, schools would continue to fail in providing the impartial and informed careers advice that young people needed.

Despite these reforms, overcoming the academic and vocational divide has proved challenging, meaning that true parity of esteem between the two has yet to be realised. Only now might the possibility of achieving this become a reality.

Schools’ ultimate sacrifice

As of 2nd January 2018, a fifth model of careers advice will be implemented.

The amendment tabled by Lord Baker to the Technical and Further Education Act (2017), will mean that all local authority-maintained schools and academies will now have to open their doors to FE and training providers, letting them advertise their services to pupils in years 8 to 13 about technical qualifications and apprenticeships.

As a result, schools will have to have in place clear arrangements for pupils to hear from post-14, post-16 and post-18 education and training providers “at, and leading up to, important transition points”. The legislation will also require schools to draw up policy statements setting out the circumstances in which other providers can gain access to their pupils to talk to them about their options.

The Technical and Further Education Act (2017) and its ‘Baker clause’ has heralded a shift away from academic excellence and the importance that is placed on it, to vocational education and the benefits it brings to young people who aren’t suited to A-Levels or university. Whilst parts of the schools sector will undoubtedly oppose the change, those working in FE will commend their sacrifice as a necessary step forward in putting vocational and academic education on an equal footing.

Politically, the change in law aligns with many of the Government’s priorities, primarily the new Industrial Strategy that is reliant on skills and a productive workforce. The Strategy goes some way in identifying the key challenges facing careers advice, but if the Government is to see the broader aims of the Strategy fulfilled, it is paramount that careers advice is at the centre of its approach. To do otherwise would be to risk the next generation of workers. Other alignments include the creation of 3 million new apprenticeships by 2020, the Social Mobility Foundation’s recent revelation that there exists a “social mobility lottery” in the UK and, of course, Brexit.

It is clear that against this background, impartial careers education, information, advice and guidance has never been so important and will be the foundation upon which the Government’s biggest reforms are most likely to be built as we head into 2018.

Looking ahead

The extent to which this most recent model will be effective remains to be seen. After all, legislation adds little, if anything, in the way of harmonious collaboration. However, the Government’s Careers Strategy published this month will help to supplement the Baker clause.

The Strategy is based around four key priorities: high quality careers programmes in schools and colleges, sufficient work experience opportunities, tailored student support and utilisation of appropriate sources of information. The Strategy will see every school and college with a dedicated careers leader in place by the start of the new school year (backed by £4 million of funding) whose job it will be to “give advice on the best training routes and up-to-date information on the jobs market, helping young people make decisions about their future”.

The Strategy also asserts that schools will now be expected to provide pupils with a least one meaningful interaction with businesses every year. In addition, twenty new careers hubs will be set up around the country led by the Careers and Enterprise Company, further linking schools, colleges, universities and local businesses. Similarly, pilot careers activities will be set up in primary schools to test out ways of engaging children from an early age on the options available to them.

Many in the sector will argue that despite these reforms and investments, more still needs to be done for careers advice. Most importantly, however, is that the reforms in the Careers Strategy are adhered to and driven forward in a timely manner.

In other words, only by rigorously measuring the outputs of the Strategy can the Government fully realise the impact of its reforms, committing to continuously reviewing its progress through open dialogue with stakeholders from right across the education sector.

And so careers advice post 2nd January 2018, the greatest present of all for young people, should be for life, not just Christmas.