Colleges have been warned they will lose funding if they don’t meet the Gatsby career benchmarks by 2020. Sir John Holman, who wrote them, explains what steps colleges need to take

Good career guidance has never been more important for college students, with the new technical education routes on their way and apprenticeships growing in status. Good guidance provides support to those navigating this changing landscape, and they’re critical for social mobility too, by helping open students’ eyes to careers they may never have considered.

In 2013 I was impatient with the criticism of career guidance in English colleges and schools. With colleagues from the University of Derby and backing from the Gatsby Foundation, I carried out an international study, a literature review, a national survey and a costing exercise to delineate what world-class career guidance looks like. This resulted in the eight Gatsby benchmarks.

-A stable careers programme

-Learning from career and labour market information

-Addressing the needs of each student

-Linking curriculum learning to careers

-Encounters with employers and employees

-Experiences of workplaces

-Encounters with further and higher education

-Personal guidance

The benchmarks are undoubtedly challenging to achieve in full; they’ve been crafted using the very best practice we’ve seen across the globe.

To ensure that what we envisaged was achievable, we began a two-year pilot in 2015 which included three FE colleges in north-east England. The results were clear: the benchmarks work. After two years, 88 per cent of the schools and colleges involved in the pilot were reaching six to eight. At the start of the pilot, no school or college managed more than three.

Each of the benchmarks has further detail that enables colleges to measure whether they are meeting it, which you can read in Gatsby’s benchmarks for colleges booklet. In September 2018, the Careers and Enterprise Company will be launching a new, college-focused version of a self-audit tool called ‘compass’, that colleges can use to measure themselves against these standards.

Good guidance provides support to those navigating this changing landscape, and they’re critical for social mobility too

The pilot showed that the same set of benchmarks can be used for both colleges and secondary schools – and it confirmed the value of having a consistent set of measures across both sectors. It also showed us that a careers leader, the senior member of staff accountable for the delivery of a careers strategy, is critical to both schools and colleges.

But the colleges told us the benchmarks needed a few subtle changes to make them completely appropriate for their needs: for example, the original benchmark five asks for an encounter with an employer every year. Colleges told us that with the world of work approaching, it needs to be more frequent than this. We consulted with colleges more widely across the country and as a result we’ve produced a modified set of Gatsby benchmarks for colleges.

The Gatsby benchmarks have been adopted as the organising framework for the Department for Education’s careers strategy, published in late 2017. In February 2018, the DfE published guidance for colleges, which uses the modified set of benchmarks, and it has since requested that every college name a designated careers leader by September 2018.

The Careers and Enterprise Company will also be expanding its support for colleges across all eight benchmarks, building on its successful enterprise coordinator programme.

Judging by our experiences in the north-east, colleges will find it valuable to have a clear, nationally-defined framework to work within. As Vikkie Morton, an assistant principal at Sunderland College, said: “We don’t need telling how important career guidance is for our students – we know that. What the Gatsby benchmarks give us is a clear framework for action. We know what we have to do, and we can measure how well we are doing it.”

Sir John Holman is senior education adviser at the Gatsby Foundation