October 2021 edition: Modern Careers Education: What it is and Why it Matters

Modern Careers Education: What it is and Why it Matters

Results days are tricky at the best of times (and that’s an understatement for the last two). Success is measured by letters and grades of course, but also by the number of students queuing up to see the careers team in a panic. I used to panic too. Had we helped students explore a range of possible futures from Year 7? Were the options right at Year 10? Did the mocks lead to three solid pathways by the end of January? Careers education, at its best, can not only take the edge off those results days but become an important part of a rich school experience.

Past, present and future

One way of thinking about schools is to see them as connecting the past, the present and future for students. The past being shorthand for the powerful knowledge children need, the present standing for supporting well-being, and the future about making sure children are ready for what comes next.

High quality careers education takes care of the future part. Like all durable things in education, it starts with a whole school strategic plan, full of crafted inputs from teachers, specialists and employers, and ends up opening pathways for young people based on skill rather than circumstance. Aspirations are nourished by support and just enough realism.

Careers education is fundamentally inclusive - dispelling stereotypes and amplifying high quality technical and vocational routes. This is crucial. As results from the Children’s Commissioner Big Ask survey highlighted, young people want brilliant, often civic minded careers, and a balanced discussion about what pathways are best for them. No binary distinction between academic and technical, just a no wrong door approach.

Employers are showing greater appetite to get involved, careers leaders are becoming more powerful and young people are demanding more guidance to navigate the opportunities and challenges that await them.

Oli de Botton

So how?

Careers leaders, leading

Since 2018, every school and college in England has had a dedicated Careers Leader - increasingly at a senior level. This workforce is growing in stature and influence, with toolkits, bursaries for training and communities of practice. They also have access to an Enterprise Advisor - a trained local business volunteer - who is committed to working with them to deliver the best possible careers provision.

There is brilliant work all around. It often involves careers leaders assuring provision, securing destinations for school leavers (particularly those at risk of dropping out altogether) and collaborating locally through new careers hubs. Increasingly we are seeing schools referencing future careers across their curriculums too. Teachers, after all, are powerful conduits of messages about what a good future looks like - implicitly and explicitly.

Trusts are elevating the role by recruiting strategic careers leaders to work across schools. Leaders like Ryan Gibson at the Academies Enterprise Trust, who is working with us and our network of employers to give more young people insight into what comes next. Maths teachers have worked with Pinewood Studios to showcase the creative industries. Geography teachers are working with the National Trust to profile careers in conservation and the environment.

The evidence shows that thanks to the hard work of schools and colleges, the system is making progress, even with the challenges of the pandemic. The latest data from our self-assessment compass tool which is used by 9 out of 10 schools and colleges and reviews provision against the eight Gatsby Benchmarks of careers guidance, is encouraging. More schools and colleges are now sharing information about the full range of future pathways and are linking their careers programme to local labour markets. Trusts are now accessing this data in aggregated form to support further improvements.

High quality experience of the workplace

Meaningful experiences with employers give young people important social capital that can help inoculate them against future economic inactivity – an important post-pandemic theme. At its best, work experience is structured learning - planned for in school and reflected on afterwards. It can even become a reference point, almost a real-world assessment, for the skills we teach in schools. At School 21 - a 4-18 school in East London which I led and co-founded - we did eight GCSEs, not nine, and used the time ‘spare’ to do two 18-week extended projects with employers. Over the years, projects included work on marketing with Ogilvy and community engagement with the Ministry of Justice. Designed to have high expectations and be mutually beneficial, the projects included mid and end point assessments (and even the opportunity for students to be fired!). Where it worked, the impact on motivation was clear. We also saw that the rigours of the workplace improved skills like oracy.

So what next?

Careers education has changed over the past 10 years but lots of the pieces of the system are in place for further progress. Employers are showing greater appetite to get involved, careers leaders are becoming more powerful and young people are demanding more guidance to navigate the opportunities and challenges that await them. The principle of collective impact - central to the Trust philosophy - will underpin future improvement. Schools working together with colleges, employers, apprenticeship providers and others as a coalition of support to ensure every young person finds their next step.