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Bad advice is blighting the careers of thousands of young people. Here's how to do better.

Graham Stuart is the Chairman of the Education Select Committee, and the MP for Beverley and Holderness.

Screen shot 2013-09-16 at 16.54.31In October last year, the Education Select Committee visited Bradford College.  Whilst there, I met a young man whose experience typifies a slow-burning scandal: namely, the inadequate quality of the careers advice on offer in our schools and colleges.

He was taking a course to join the uniformed services.  He had wasted the previous year on a course that was not right for him and would not have led to a job in the fire service, which he wanted to join.  To add insult to injury, this young man had found out during the appropriate course that the fire service is now shrinking, and there was unlikely to be a job for him at the end.

The system is failing that young man – and thousands like him.  They need good-quality careers guidance if they are to make informed choices about the courses that they take at school, and their options when they leave. This is particularly true at a time when one in five young people aged 16 to 24 are unemployed. 

However, with a few honourable exceptions, that support is currently not available.  Since September 2012, schools have been legally responsible for securing access to careers advice for their students.  This transfer of responsibility has, regrettably, been a serious mistake.  Schools were not given extra resources to supply careers services.  Perhaps more importantly, they are not rigorously and routinely evaluated on careers advice, so it gets neglected by head teachers.
In fairness to ministers, the Coalition inherited a bad situation.  The dysfunctional Connexions service was not succeeding, and was rightly wound down.  But the transfer of responsibility to schools has not been the answer - indeed, things are only getting worse.

A report published today by The Pearson Think Tank reveals the extent of the problem.  Only 12 per cent of educators polled said they “know a lot” about the new duty to deliver independent, impartial careers guidance, while one in three said they have never heard of it.  Sharp falls were reported in the availability of some key elements of careers advice, including work experience (down 14 per cent on previous years), careers libraries (down 12 per cent) and individual careers counselling (down 9 per cent).

This follows hard on the heels of a devastating report by Ofsted last week, who assess that 80 per cent of schools are not providing effective careers guidance for all their students in years 9, 10 and 11.  The links between schools and local employers were described as “weak”, while the promotion of options available at other providers – such as vocational training and apprenticeships – was variable.

That matters, because young people need guidance in order to make good decisions.   A recent study by the Education and Employers Taskforce underlined the problem.   The taskforce surveyed 11,000 13 to 16-year-olds, mapping their job ambitions against the employment market over the period to 2020. It showed that teenagers have a weak grasp of the availability of certain jobs.  For example, 10 times as many youngsters were aiming for jobs in the culture, media and sports sector as there are jobs likely to be available.

How do we put this right?  As today’s report makes clear – and as my Committee argued in January – a key part of the answer lies with the new National Careers Service, which has done brilliant work helping adult job-seekers.  By working with - and challenging - schools, the NCS could share best practice and ensure a competent careers service is available to all ages. Given the NCS’ existing infrastructure and developing labour market knowledge, the extension of its remit to schools could be provided for only a fraction of the old Connexions budget.  This is a conclusion endorsed by a huge range of organisations, including Ofsted, the CBI, the National Careers Council and the Association of School and College Leaders. 

However, the NCS is only part of the solution.  Like all organisations, schools are driven by the things on which they are evaluated.  Requiring them to produce dedicated careers plans could form an important part of the new accountability regime for schools.  I was pleased to see Ofsted recommended last week that its inspectors should take greater account of careers guidance when conducting future schools inspections.

The Pearson report also recommends promoting another form of accountability: destination measures for school-leavers.  The Education Committee fully supports this.  In our own report, we urged Ministers to pursue the development of more sophisticated education destination measures, so we can track how successful schools are in helping pupils into decent jobs.

Today’s report throws the gauntlet down to ministers.  The stakes are high – both for young people like those I met in Bradford, but also for the Government itself.  The education reforms the Coalition has undertaken are undermined if there is no decent signposting within education and between education and the world of employment.   I hope ministers are listening.


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