James Turner stresses the importance of impartial, tailored careers guidance

Students from affluent homes seem to have an inbuilt compass to point them in the right direction: to the exams which have the most currency with universities and employers; to the higher education courses which lead to the best job outcomes; and to the extra curriculars and work experience which will put them on the first rung of the professional ladder.

But, as I have blogged before, navigating the increasingly complex careers and education landscape for others is difficult. More choices, more qualifications, more pathways, more confusion. The rationale is not always the practical: taking a law degree is not necessarily the best route to becoming a lawyer; and few management consultants have studied undergraduate management degrees.  And what is more important – what you study or where you study it?

For those who need it most, sadly, careers and education advice can be the worst‎.  In the absence of parents, friends and family with, say, experience of university or of professional jobs, students rely on schools, colleges and the internet for advice.

But teachers can’t be expected to have a wide knowledge of all the options out there, or the time to dedicate to keeping up-to-date with an ever-changing education and jobs market.  And a school with a certain educational offer or tradition will always have a vested interest in making sure students follow that route. The internet of course is full of websites offering advice, but students have little way of telling which is impartial and high quality.

Today’s report‎ from the Sutton Trust, by Professor Tristram Hooley, Advancing Ambitions, analyses over 800 schools and sixth form colleges to examine the impact of good quality careers advice on access to university and exam results. The report backs up anecdotal evidence which suggests there is a damaging postcode lottery for good careers advice in England.  The report goes on to call for improved guidance for all students. In particular it suggests that‎ the National Careers Service needs strengthening to provide better support to teachers and pupils, including through more face-to-face provision from expert counsellors.  To make sure it works on the ground, this should be backed by stronger statutory guidance and more prominence for careers advice in Ofsted inspections.

What is particularly interesting is that the report finds evidence of better attainment in GCSEs (albeit modest) and a significant reduction in persistent absences at schools and colleges with good quality careers advice. ‎ Perhaps that will start to focus policy makers’ minds on this often-neglected subject.   And it is not all about higher education either: a young person choosing a degree when a high quality vocational pathway would be a better fit and lead to better outcomes, is equally as concerning as a very academic student underselling themselves in the UCAS process.

There has been a recent trend in education to focus on‎ the basics: from Michael Gove’s qualification reforms to Tristram Hunt’s focus on teaching quality as the main driver of school improvement. Careers and education guidance has barely got a look in. That may change, as the new education secretary Nicky Morgan placed greater emphasis on it during her recent party conference speech. After all, what can be more basic than making sure young people have access to good, independent advice about their futures?

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