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Who needs careers professionals?!

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How seriously do schools and education professionals take the longer term goals of their students? Anne Chant argues that the removal of career learning as a statutory part of the curriculum and the ongoing de-professionalisation of careers information and guidance are worrying trends and oversights that will be regretted in the future.

Ladder against a wallCareers work in schools has long been the Cinderella in the curriculum, delivered often by reluctant, indifferent tutors under pressure for shorter term goals than the life courses and futures of their charges. It is often a ‘good will’ enterprise supported by a few enlightened enthusiasts with little time and resource to do so. This is not new. In the 22 years that I have been teaching careers and supporting others to teach careers there have been some notable highs and lows but the discipline has always been a political football for governments and oppositions alike.  Nationally, Careers sits uncomfortably but not irreparably between the drive for social justice and the need for a competitive economy. For the individual it also straddles a divide: that between the desire to do something with life that is enjoyable and fulfilling and the need to earn a living. For some the former is an unrealistic dream when jobs are hard to find, and anything is better than nothing. So terms such as ‘career’ carry a different meaning in different schools. Careers is not as simple as all that after all. It is inextricably woven into notions of identity, class, opportunity and social structure.

One of the features of the current coalition government has been to claim that they are handing power back to professionals; localism has become a regular byword for respecting professional expertise and knowledge, particularly in education. However this is in stark contrast to the direction of movement within the careers world. Despite the responsibility outlined in the Education Act 2011 that all schools must make impartial career guidance available to their students, response to this statutory requirement is patchy. This was outlined by the Ofsted report in September 2013  but despite efforts by Department of Education it has been reported that schools are now found to be using teaching assistants and even receptionists to offer careers advice to students.

We might expect parents and teachers and other adults in a young person’s life to offer ideas and experiences and even a little advice. Our experience of career is something where we all feel we have something to offer. Similarly we might comment on our beliefs about healthy living, diet, fashion or even holiday destination. But how many parents, when concerned about their child’s health, would assume their own experience is enough, or feel it was acceptable that the doctor’s receptionist would be just as useful as seeing the doctor themselves? Why then does it appear that schools feel it is acceptable to put any reasonably competent adult with a bit of time on their hands to guide, advise or counsel young people on their future working lives? The answer may lie in the lack of understanding within Education of what careers work, career learning and career guidance and counselling is all about. Perhaps 50 years ago it was simply about deciding what a young person might like ‘to be’ when they grow up, a familiar question to young people by grandparents who aren’t sure what else to ask them. But the complexity of the labour market, the opportunities available and the pace of change is such that today more than ever, young people need skills, knowledge and information from professionals who are specifically trained to provide it. It cannot be delivered in a half hour discussion with the head of year 11, let alone with the receptionist or librarian. Careers education, more than ever before, must be integrated into the curriculum from the early years of secondary school at the latest and supported by fully qualified professionals to help young people make complex decisions and smooth transitions.

The Department for Education has responded to this important aspect of a young person’s preparation for adult life with emphasis on the engagement of employers and employer groups. In its ‘Inspiration’ agenda  it urges schools and colleges to engage with employers to raise aspirations and encourage enterprise and innovation in our future work force. Few would argue that, as they have done for many years, employers, both national and local, have a great deal to offer in linking the learning in the classroom with the world outside. However on its own it is information. Without thoughtful intervention and links to the curriculum more broadly it will do little to challenge stereotypes or enable young people to reflect on their values and cultural expectations. Properly qualified careers professionals can do this. School receptionists, Librarians or PE teachers, however well-meaning, cannot. The Department’s most recent response is a ‘character awards’ competition to reward schools who foster resilience, grit and character. Perhaps we are reaching a neo-liberal zenith. But of one thing I am sure; such short term gestures will do little for the futures of individuals or the economic health of the nation.

If we don’t get this right, all the A*- C grades achieved could be as passports into an unknown wilderness, or a predictable dead end. My plea to schools is this; by all means support the achievement of the passport but, please also ensure that young people also get some decent maps from someone who knows about the new landscape and the new roads to get there. Take the professional leadership of careers and the long term future of young people as seriously as the leadership of other key aspects of the curriculum: maths, English, etc. After all not many would think that these should be left to the good will of the receptionist!

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