‘I don’t know where to find the careers adviser… He has disappeared’

I don’t know where to find the careers adviser… He has disappeared’: The impact of changes to careers advice on 14-16 year olds in University Technical Colleges and schools’

By Acquah, D.K., Limmer, H. & Malpass, D.

In Research Papers in Education. 2016.

Find the article here.

This research aims to explore the variation that young people experience in terms of careers information advice and guidance (CIAG) and work-related learning (WRL) in England. Work-related learning is defined as ‘those aspects of the curriculum which are concerned with the development of vocationally relevant knowledge, understanding, skills and personal qualities’. Specifically, the provisions of each are examined through experiences within different education providers, by examining data collected from surveys and student focus groups of those studying at University Technical Colleges (UTCs), and vocational and academic students at comprehensive schools.

At the time of writing, UK policy relating to careers information and work related learning had undergone significant change. In September 2010, the designated careers service provider ‘Connexions’ was cut by local authorities. In 2011, the Department for Education launched the ‘Wolf Review’, and as a result of the findings presented in the report of inadequate levels of WRL quality and provision the government removed the statutory duty to provide work-related learning opportunities. The authors argue that experiences of the world of work are oh increased importance during a period of labour market complexity when young people can accrue high value from advice and guidance in informing their future career decisions.

A review of the recent research undertaken in the field found there to be a wide variation in the quality and quantity of CIAG provision. The National Careers Council was established in May 2012, aiming to advise the government on careers provision available in England. They found that young people were not getting correct information regarding projected trends in the labour market and industries and sectors available to them. It was also found that vocational training and apprenticeships were not widely endorsed with many schools with sixth form colleges appearing to hold a vested interest in encouraging students to continue with A-level education. Young people are more likely to report high levels of satisfaction with CIAG which is impartial by nature and believe inaccurate advice leads to unsuitable education choices (e.g. subject selection) necessary for specific careers.

The first University Technical College (UTC) was established in 2010. They represent an alternative to mainstream forms of education in England by offering specialised curriculum routes for 14 to 19 year olds. The colleges aim to provide direct experiences of the working world and clear routes for progression as they are sponsored by a university and local businesses. The curriculum comprises of a combined integration of general education, bridging studies and technical studies which are intended to align with local labour market opportunities.

The research presented here utilised a mixed-methods approach over two years, consisting of surveys and focus groups. Five comprehensive state schools and two UTCs participated in the research. The final sample size of those who completed both waves of the survey was 163 young people.

The results found that careers education and guidance rarely influenced the decision-making processes of young people. Students within UTCs were largely influenced by the desire to leave their previous school and attracted to state-of-the art equipment and links to business when deciding upon their engineering courses. 73% of survey respondents believed that a UTC education would better prepare them for the world of work. Both UTC students and vocational students were influenced by family members who gave advice and acted as role models to young people. While careers advice and guidance was not seen as a hugely influential factor, students in UTC had more access to it and vocational and academic comprehensive school students received less CIAG. 80% of students at UTCs had received careers talks from different people about what their job was like. However, many young people received little or no formal face-to-face careers education or guidance – especially in Year 9 when making the decision on progression.

Young people generally reported high levels of satisfaction with work experience placements and noted benefits they had in giving them understandings of ‘what it’s like to be in a workplace’. However, the majority of students found sourcing placements to be difficult due to the high levels of competition – especially for experiences that are aligned to the interests of the young people. Those with limited access to connections particularly struggled in securing work experience opportunities.

The researchers also explored the way young people conceived of their futures. The majority of students planned to progress to full time study, either through A-Level education or apprenticeships schemes. Only a small minority were able to communicate longer-term future plans, and necessary actions that must be completed to achieve them. 65% of students on the vocational pathway in comprehensive schools had altered their career aspirations between the two waves of the survey. This finding perhaps casts doubts over UTCs requiring young people to make selections over their careers at a relatively early age, when students are susceptible to changing their opinions – though the general education element of the UTC curriculum allows for horizontal progression to remain available to young people. Many of the young people questioned were uncertain over their future career aspirations. Many students were aware of the benefits of obtaining higher level qualifications, specifically university degrees. However there were doubts concerning the levels of debt associated with undergraduate qualifications and some courses may not guarantee employment. UTC students questioned were more informed than the other young people when it came to the reality of undergraduate education and how student loans operate.

The authors argue that the research is important in giving a voice to students within the policy literature of CIAG and WRL that already exists. The lack of careers education and guidance available for young people highlighted here signals an area for improvement. Furthermore, any CIAG that young people received had limited impact upon the decision-making patterns of the young people in the survey, shedding light onto the poor quality of CIAG. It is important to note that the research was conducted in 2010/11 when the House of Commons Education Committee found that local authorities were making cuts to CIAG services. At this time there was no duty to provide face-to-face CIAG. These findings are worrying when considering the benefits that are witnessed from CIAG, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds in cultivating their experiences and attitudes towards the world of work.