The future of careers advice in both colleges and schools was scrutinised at the AoC Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance Conference last week.

The event, held at ‘Etc. Venues’ in London, was a chance for professionals in the further education sector to express their concerns to politicians, civil servants and union representatives.

Joy Mercer, Director of Policy (Education) at AoC, started the morning by introducing the speakers and commenting on the rapidly changing landscape both in education and employment.

“We are in a very interesting situation in terms of careers guidance,” she said.

“We’ve got one million young people unemployed, and we’ve got a lot more choice at 14 and at 16 – so it’s quite complicated out there.

The senior policy manager added: “People don’t go into a job which they continue until they retire anymore.

“And for young people, with an economy which is ‘interesting’, and in fact very challenging at the moment, it’s ever more important that at the time in their life when they’re thinking about committing themselves to a choice of a course or a qualification, that they get the right, personal, expert, face to face guidance from an independent adviser.”

Joy Mercer then handed over to Simon Hughes MP, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats and government advocate on access to education.

Mr Hughes delivered a number of well-crafted anecdotes about both his constituents and a number of young people he had recently visited, including Ashley J Baptiste, a recent entrant to the X Factor competition, and Grace Jones, who recently celebrated her 112th birthday.

The Minister explained that his experiences with these people had helped to emphasise his thoughts on the importance of basic education and quality careers advice.

“Even in the age of emails, and Twitter, and online, and everybody texting all the time, actually the thing that really makes the difference is being able to talk to someone who is not your parent, and not your teacher, they’re great, but to talk to other people about careers,” Mr Hughes said.

“That’s why I’ve been pushing so hard for the government to move to make a commitment to face to face careers guidance.”

Mr Hughes emphasised that when he had surveyed young people about their preferred way of receiving careers advice at school, 100 per cent say they preferred it to be in person.

“I’m clear that we need to really value the face to face carers advice,” Mr Hughes said.

In a speech titled ‘Careers guidance for young people and adults – now more vital than ever’, Mr Hughes outlined four key points, including his vision of an annual prompt service regarding careers advice.

“I’m really keen that we move to a system where by the time everyone leaves school, they’re basically linked into a perpetual careers advice prompt service,” Mr Hughes said.

“So that literally every year, you will be reminded about what the options are.”

Mr Hughes continued: “So if you leave school and you’re working in your dad’s garage, you are reminded that you can still get an apprenticeship, still go to college, get a technical qualification, get a BTEC, or think about University.”

As previously reported in FE Week, Mr Hughes concluded by suggesting that both learners and parents needed a better understanding of the costs involved with each qualification.

“We absolutely need to get the message across as to what the cost benefits are of all of the options,” Mr Hughes said.

The Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrats then handed over to Brian Lightman, General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL).

“I think it’s tremendously important to have high quality, impartial careers advice and guidance,” Mr Lightman said.

“The social mobility agenda is not just about going to university, it is about people being able to get a step on the ladder, and we know there are very different steps on that ladder, and at very different stages.”

Mr Lightman, on request by the event organisers, focused on the impact the changing services for information, advice and guidance was having on schools.

“We absolutely need to get the message across as to what the cost benefits are of all of the options”

“The whole government policy agenda of structural changes, the choice agenda, the introduction of free schools, UTCs, new types of academies and so on, all of the curriculum change, much of which is at the moment only highlighted in very broad terms – all the detail is still to follow, which means very confusing and conflicting messages for young people,” Mr Lightman said.

“All of these things make the need for advice and guidance desperately important.”

The ASCL General Secretary then commented on the riots which took place in August, and how careers advice could help to address some of the deep rooted problems young people had.

“It’s about raising aspirations, it’s about injecting hope, and when we saw all those terrible pictures of what was going on in August, I just felt what we could do to inject hope in young people,” Mr Lightman said.

“Aspirations yes, but actually to make them believe in themselves, and believe in the opportunities that are there for them and to know how to actually access those things.”

Although it looks likely that school teachers will take on at least some of the responsibility for delivery of careers guidance, Mr Lightman was keen to emphasise that learners needed objective, factual information given by appropriate professionals.

“You have to have qualified people who are up to date, who have the right information, the objective information, and know where to access that information online, and on the telephone services and all the other things that are going to back that up,” Mr Lightman said.

The rise in apprenticeships has been debated back and forth over the last few months, but it was rare to have an opportunity to discuss how they are communicated to learners at school.

Mr Lightman said: “I’m very aware that despite all of the efforts about apprenticeships, there is still too much confusion about it.

“We’re still not getting the message across about all of the opportunities that are out there.

“To make sure young people know what apprenticeships are, that they don’t all start at 16, that you can start them at various stages and you can do them in all kinds of different places as well.”

The keynote speeches were rounded off by Dr Susan Pember OBE, Director of Further Education, Skills Investment and Performance at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Dr Pember used the conference to expand upon, among others, the new National Careers Service due to be launched next year.

“It’s about the growth agenda. We cannot grow the country if young people keep on making the wrong choices,” she said.

Dr Pember explained that the government initiatives announced both in the Autumn Statement, delivered by George Osborne, and ‘New Challenges New Chances: Further Education and Skills System Reform Plan’, published by BIS, were about “growing individuals” in order to boost the economy.

“If you get an empowered learner, and a good careers service, which is ensuring that the learner is empowered by good information and good advice, many of the other things that we need will follow,” she said.

Dr Pember went on to justify both the capacity and approach of the National Careers Service, arguing that professional guidance would be “stepping back into the light” as part of the “start of a renaissance”.

All of the speakers convened before the first refreshment break to answer questions about the centralisation of the government’s new careers service, and whether advice from schools and colleges would ever truly be impartial.

In the afternoon delegates could register to attend a number of breakout sessions presented by, among others, Louise Proctor, Head of Service Development in the National Careers Service Team, part of the Skills Funding Agency (SFA), and Paul Chubb, Director and Professional Adviser at Careers England.

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