A damning Education Select Committee report on the quality of careers guidance at schools, prompted FE Week editor Nick Linford to issue a rallying call for colleges to up their game in promoting their FE offer. David Walrond, who addressed the committee, has responded, explaining why he thinks the emphasis should remain on improving the advice given out by schools.

An element of the cheerfully provocative is often refreshing and, like all caricatures, Nick Linford’s FE Week editor’s column had a grain of truth in it — some colleges really are too prone to wishful thinking and even a little self-pity.

However, on the substantive points the piece gets it wrong.

First, it conflates “offering impartial careers advice” (a duty) with “promoting the competition” (an idiocy, clearly). They are two completely different things.

I do expect publicly-financed schools, charged with a public duty, to do the former. So does parliament. I suspect FE Week does, too.

I do agree schools would probably be very unlikely indeed to do the latter — but then I don’t know anyone in their right mind who expects that of them.

The overwhelming evidence — from AoC surveys and much other research that has emanated from, for example, Careers England, the recent Commons Select Committee and from colleges themselves — is that huge numbers of learners in 11 to 18 schools are denied access to, and have very little understanding of, the full range of post-16 options on offer to them, and that very many 11 to 18 schools are instrumental in that.

The consequences are not just tough luck for a few whingeing colleges who simply need to roll with the punches, wise up and spend up on the marketing front.

The consequence is a situation that is completely unacceptable — one that perpetuates major inequalities of opportunity, and damages both the well-being and life chances of those individuals who then make wrong choices.

If you find that approach sentimental, then focus instead on the damage to the economy — potentially up to £28bn worth of damage, as reported elsewhere in FE Week [as stated to MPs by Dr Deirdre Hughes, chair of the National Careers Council].

Many of the proposed “new” alternative marketing tactics for colleges are remedial and compensatory.

They are already old, tired, and frankly a bit desperate.

Careers advice is a serious business, not a marketing wheeze”

Prospectuses and application forms just get binned. Local radio jingles cheerfully with the general merits of colleges.

Buses carry (almost routinely now) short marketing slogans and happy student faces. Radio and buses do not and cannot carry data on progression, work-placement and destinations, careers advice, course details.

Social media has some real potential for colleges including, of course, supporting teaching, training and learning (that stuff, it should be remembered, colleges do when they are not marketing, campaigning or wrestling with the latest funding cuts).

However, trying to interrupt student discussions on social media with serious careers guidance and work placement chat is viewed by most students as akin to your dad turning up at a party and saying ‘it’s home time’.

Independent and impartial careers advice about what and where to study post-16 is an absolute entitlement. It is a serious business, not a marketing wheeze.

In its absence, only those from families with existing social and cultural capital get to make the right choices.

The foolishness and injustice of this are now compounded by the new set of government post-16 performance tables, supposedly provided for young people to assist them in their choices, but which in reality ignore or devalue vocational qualifications, incentivise the delivery of the narrowest curriculum, and mask the underperformance of many school sixth forms.

We certainly have a post-16 market with much competition and more choice.

Colleges will be more than at home in this environment, providing that market is a genuinely open one, properly regulated, and informed by reliable information and performance data about all the different providers.

We simply do not have those things. The FE sector needs to fight for them. So does FE Week.

David Walrond, principal at Truro and Penwith College, Cornwall