Can the government fix the ‘confusing’ careers landscape?


The skills white paper sets the lofty ambition of a “clear, all-age careers system”. Will a former academic be the man to deliver it? Jess Staufenberg reports

In 2013 Michael Gove had something of an outburst in an education select committee hearing. He’d just axed Connexions, the national careers advice service for young people aged 13 to 19, and retorted in the face of criticism there was “a lot of garbage talked about careers”.

Poor career opportunities for students, the then education secretary thundered, “comes down to our failure to ensure that they are literate, numerate and confident in subjects like science – not that we have had an insufficient number of well-paid careers advisers.”

Wind forward to 2021 and it would be tempting to say the government is now eating those words. In the recent Skills for Jobs white paper, the Department for Education admits “there is no single place you can go to get government-backed, comprehensive careers information”, adding the careers landscape can be “confusing, fragmented and unclear”.

It would seem to suggest the National Careers Service, set up by Gove the year he axed Connexions, might not be working as a single source of support as intended, and that perhaps the DfE’s careers strategy, published after much delay in 2017 as an “ambitious plan”, is struggling too.

It’s all something of a vindication for Robert Halfon, the education select committee chair, who has claimed “careers support is still far too fragmented” with a “confused mish-mash of offerings” and “wasteful spending and duplication” of services.

‘Challenges to alignment’

Now the skills paper sets the lofty ambition of a “clear, all-age careers system”. A sentence outlines the main strategy towards this: “We will improve both local and national alignment between The Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC) and the National Careers Service (NCS)”.

Set up by Nicky Morgan in 2015, and with a new chief executive Oli de Botton at the helm since February, the CEC deploys volunteer “enterprise advisers” (often local employers) and helps “careers hubs” of schools and colleges support each other. On the other hand, the National Careers Service (NCS) works through subcontractors, who target specific cohorts of adults that worry the government – such as the long-term unemployed – while providing only phone and web services to those aged 13 to 19. Matching the two up sounds a daunting task.

 The man appointed to crack it is Professor Sir John Holman, a chemist at the University of York and now an “independent strategic adviser on careers guidance” to Gavin Williamson. Holman himself came up with the eight Gatsby benchmarks for good careers guidance that the Careers & Enterprise Company encourages schools and colleges to meet. But can he do it?

Prof Sir John Holman

 “They’re trying to line up two things that are completely separate and different,” says Jan Ellis, the chief executive of the Career Development Institute, a professional body for careers educators. “The Careers & Enterprise Company is an arms-length company of the government, there to help manage careers guidance. The National Careers Service is completely different, it’s a contracted-out organisation. Managing contractors is expensive, so it’s really difficult to say how you would join these up.”

Her words are echoed by Janet Colledge, a careers education consultant on the Quality in Careers Standards Board. “It’s going to be interesting to see how Holman sees the CEC and NCS working together, because until now the NCS has basically been trying to get people into jobs. It has a very limited remit with young people”.

Holman does give some hints as to what might be in store, expanding on the white paper’s mysterious claim that the DfE has developed “four principles for increasing alignment”. FE Week can reveal these are completing the national rollout of the careers infrastructure; developing an enhanced national careers service website; better collaboration at an area level; and complementary personal guidance for young people.

 His first hint relates to the almost 50 career hubs in the country, which are meant to share best practice and develop local careers strategy. About half of FE colleges (155) and 45 per cent of secondary schools (2,090) are in a careers hub, according to the CEC. “The NCS has area contractors, and the CEC has a growing network of careers hubs, and I’m quite sure we can look at how we can get collaboration happening systematically between those two,” Holman says. It’s not absolutely clear what this means, but it looks like career hub leads in schools and colleges might play a part in linking up with the National Careers Service.

Data should also be shared, he says. “Labour market information, which is all those statistics about different jobs, vacancy rates, opportunities – if we could use that consistently across the two organisations, that would be a big win.” It sounds sensible, but can the DfE easily gather that data from its NCS subcontractors?

When FE Week asked the DfE for the numbers of young people who use the NCS each year, it responded that such information was not published and was not something the department could easily access or provide. More worryingly, the same response was given when asked how much funding the NCS has had since it was formed. Aligning data across both bodies sounds an easier task than finding it in the first place.

If you’re starting off, you really need that one-to-one support

Holman would also like a “single source of government-assured information used consistently across schools and colleges […] so schools, colleges and the NCS are all speaking the same language”. If the NCS website proves highly inspiring to students, that sounds sensible too. Given there’s no available data on whether young people find it useful or not, it might be a good idea to get feedback on its design first. A schools expert has previously called the site “as dull as dishwater”. It has to be said, the civil service-format homepage isn’t exactly engaging.

 But as Halfon says, it’s a start. “This is a step forward and it’s a pretty big nod.” Yet he adds that “we need to radically reform careers advice”. He’s with the experts on that.

‘Lack of personal, professional advice’

Olly Newton, the executive director at the education research charity the Edge Foundation, similarly welcomes the “alignment”, but is clear the current ambition is too limited. “My worry about the connection between the services is making sure it focuses enough on face-to-face guidance. Lots of evidence suggests that telephones, the internet and self-help are OK for adults changing jobs. But if you’re starting off or thinking about a future career, you really need that one-to-one support”.

Here we arrive back at Gove’s original distaste for careers advisers. Deirdre Hughes, a careers policy adviser, points out that although Gatsby benchmark 8 says schools and colleges must make sure every student has “guidance interviews with a qualified careers adviser”, they have to buy this in themselves as qualified careers professionals have not been funded for schools since 2012. One helpful alignment would be for the NCS to offer its qualified advisers to students via schools and colleges, she says. At present “the model is to expect teachers to do more”.

Deirdre Hughes

 It all puts the DfE under pressure to deliver. Worrying statistics are lining up: this week a survey of 10,000 primary school pupils by Education and Employers, a UK-based charity that “connects volunteers from the world of work with schools”, found the career aspirations of seven year-olds were “relatively unchanged” by age 18. UCAS has similarly found that 20 per cent of students said they couldn’t take the course that interested them because they didn’t have the relevant A-levels.

Clare Marchant, the chief executive at UCAS, says “the more we can do, earlier on, the better”, including year 6. Yet primary schools, and special needs schools and colleges, are not mentioned in the white paper.

 All the while, select committees will keep their eagle eyes on the funding spent on the current model: £29 million for CEC last year, up from £19 million the year before (despite Morgan pledging it would be self-funding long term) and undisclosed sums on the NCS. It’s less than the £230 million spent on Connexions, Hughes says, but it’s creeping up – while funded, professional careers advisers in schools and colleges remain nowhere in sight.

 In a last sentence, the skills white paper almost seems to guess a more wholescale approach might be needed. The “alignment” will take place over the next 18 months, it says – “as we work towards a longer-term review of the delivery system”. Will that “insufficient number of well-paid careers advisers” come to matter after all?

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One comment

  1. This sounds like more words-for-words sake from the Tory’s.
    NCS is an embarrassment, Level 6 grade careers-guidance professionals generally aren’t interested in working NCS contracts, the model of delivery doesn’t actually encourage ‘guidance’. If advisers dare to spend several sessions with customers they’re practically threatened with higher targets. They just want customers in the door then out again, no interest in quality of support for vulnerable people. NCS is a stats generator for a government that wants to ‘look’ like it’s helping but isn’t really interested in elevating people from poverty (quite the opposite). What difference does it make if the lazy, incompetent managers of embarrassing NCS sub contractors are partnered with another institution? Isn’t it just a bigger mess waiting to happen?
    How about the total removal of DoE, DWP and the NCS in favour of decentralised, localised services when experts within our local communities are allowed to actually apply their qualifications and expertise to support the community?