The Education Act 2011 handed over responsibility for the provision of careers guidance in England to schools. Schools are now required to provide ‘independent’ and ‘impartial’ career guidance to all pupils from year 8 upwards. In the past, careers work was the responsibility of local authority funded Careers Services, and from 2001-11, of Connexions, the holistic support service whose remit was to provide all kinds of IAG to young people. Since 2011 schools have been provided with guidelines considered by some to be vague, and no extra funds to fulfil the new statutory requirements. They can choose whether to commission careers guidance services from the local authority (if a service is provided), from private providers, take provision in-house, or a combination of these. A main focus of the new statutory guidelines is employer engagement in schools. This is despite international evidence suggesting that school-based guidance systems tend to have weak links to the labour market.
Researchers at the University of East London conducted a project in two schools in East London, which aimed to enhance careers work for Key Stage 3 (ages, 11-14) in the context of the new requirements. The project was funded by the Greater London Authority. Both schools were local authority run secondaries in areas of high deprivation.
Both schools already had some links with local employers through year 11 work experience placements, although these were mostly in the retail industry. Beyond these, School 1 before the project had no further links with employers at all, and School 2 had limited links, having just started two new mentoring programmes, one with an international law firm (years 8-13) and one with an auditing firm (years 9-13). However, these only benefitted a small number of pupils (one or two per year).
The schools explored three different approaches to developing their links with employers: activities run in-house, activities run by external providers, careers trips. This is what we found:
Activities run in-house included a ‘Careers in the Arts Day’, and ‘Take yourself to work Day’, both free of cost. Volunteer speakers for the arts day were found using the staff’s own contacts. ‘Take yourself to work’ involved pupils shadowing a family member or friend at their workplace. (Local authority careers services, if they exist, support such activities, although at a cost). Many pupils enjoyed the activities and felt that they had started to broaden their aspirational horizons. However organisation takes a lot of resources in terms of staff time, and running the activities needs the full support of teaching staff, some of whom were reluctant.
Both schools also held events run by external providers, including a local Education Business Partnership, an international bank, a national STEM organisation, a local theatre and a creative arts organisation. On the one hand using external providers was a good option because it saved on the schools’ own resources in terms of staff organising time. This also proved a particularly effective way of providing pupils with information about vocational qualifications and alternative learning routes. On the other hand there were several problems. Firstly, the external companies varied a lot and did not always deliver what they promised, such as sending fewer volunteers than had been agreed. Secondly, some companies had actually outsourced to others, which caused further misunderstandings. Thirdly, despite prior agreements, the input was not always explicitly careers-related and despite having been marketed as suitable for years 7-8, some materials were still pitched too high. Fourthly, these organisations were felt by schools, at times, to be expensive.
Both schools took their pupils on careers-related trips, viewed by teachers as a good way to allow pupils to experience different industries from the inside. However, provision varies considerably, as does suitability for younger students and costs involved. It was also remarkable that in East London, whilst several careers events are held which focus on STEM subjects and industries, very few focus on the Arts and Humanities.
The current government’s withdrawal of support for a discrete careers service and focus on school engagement with employers may be therefore somewhat misplaced. The schools in our study had few existing relationships with employers and businesses. Ofsted (2013) similarly found that schools do not engage with employers effectively, if at all, including not using local employer networks or enterprise partnerships. Although companies and educational organisations run events to support schools to provide links and experiences for pupils, this engagement can be fraught with potential pitfalls for schools. Teachers themselves tend not to have the experience, networks or time to provide this service. I would agree with others, who recommend local and national education and business partnerships’ roles be further developed.
Dr Charlotte Chadderton is Senior Research Fellow in Education at the Cass School of Education and Communities at the University of East London