Widespread poor education and careers advice is preventing large numbers of academically able pupils from non-privileged homes going on to higher education and diverting them into ‘a cul de sac of opportunity’ according to the Sutton Trust, the charity which aims to improve social mobility in Britain. It says that improving advice in schools is essential in getting more disadvantaged young people to university.

Its latest report published today (Tuesday) concludes: “A figure that emerges again and again is that at least half of careers and education advice [in state schools] is inadequate or inappropriate. It also seems that swathes of young people with the potential to go on to higher education are being missed by current advice and guidance provision.”

The findings are presented in the Trust’s report to the National Council for Educational Excellence, Increasing higher education participation amongst disadvantaged young people in poor communities.

The report reviews current evidence on access to higher education and presents an action plan of 30 policy proposals, including:

  • Support and guidance should be targeted early on, particularly at the end of primary school and early secondary school
  • Every secondary school should have a lead teacher responsible for higher education information, advice and guidance at every key stage
  • There should be a duty on schools, colleges and local authorities to ensure provision contains certain key elements: for example, a visit to a university campus and activities involving parents
  • Universities should focus more outreach work on younger age groups, raising aspirations and nurturing talent early on

The report includes a review by Sandra McNally of the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics of a number of studies on advice in schools. The review looked at research which suggested that only one in seven pupils received a careers and education guidance package that met acceptable criteria (Munro and Elsom, 2000). Dr McNally says: “There appears to be no recent evidence to suggest that this situation has improved.”

The review also highlights the following findings:

  • Only half of 16/17 year olds said the support they had received had been helpful; 58% said they would have liked more (Ireland et al. 2006).
  • In another study of university applicants, 60% of those surveyed had not received enough information or no information about the relationship between higher education courses and employment (Purcell et al. 2007).
  • In the same study, 73% of those surveyed reported they had received either not enough or no information on the implications of their subject choices on future pathways
  • In a survey of schools, it was found that in nearly two-thirds, careers guidance was being delivered by staff without formal qualifications for their role (National Audit Office, 2004).
  • The Sutton Trust says that there is evidence which suggests that in some schools education and careers guidance is seen as low status, with little time devoted to it. This can particularly disadvantage higher ability pupils from poorer homes, who do not receive the support they need to apply to highly selective universities.

James Turner, Director of Policy at the Sutton Trust, said: “Today’s school pupils need to negotiate an increasingly complex educational landscape, and the fear is that too many are making ill-informed choices early on which effectively put them out of the running for certain university choices and careers later in life.

“The absence of high quality advice and support has a particularly negative effect on young people from non-privileged backgrounds, who do not have access to networks of graduates and professionals to make up for deficiencies in the system. All young people deserve realistic and informed advice about where certain educational pathways lead and this needs to start early on – at least at age 14 – so they don’t find themselves down a cul-de-sac of opportunity, wondering what could have been.”

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