By Andrew Morris
The findings of Education & Employers’ Disconnected report resonate with my experience as a Deputy Head responsible for careers work in an inner city Sixth Form College. That was back in the 80s and 90s and things have changed in many ways since then. The disconnection revealed in this report makes me wonder if they have changed enough.
The disparity between young people’s career aspirations and the options available to them in the labour market is not new. At the core of it lies the difference between the way teenagers tend to think and feel subjectively, and the objective reality of working life ahead of them. Their ideas about their futures are often based on anecdote and parochial experience and, as with many aspects of adolescence, are constantly changing. However, though such ideas may be ephemeral, they may also be very strongly felt.
Helping teenagers navigate this aspect of their lives is not a job for educators, parents or careers advisers alone. It requires a blend of expertise: family, friends, classroom teachers, pastoral tutors, careers specialists and employers all have parts to play. Together they need to contend with the various influences and to work in conjunction with parents.
Education professionals are constantly trying to balance the many forces playing on their young charges, some of which are in conflict with one another. For some students the principal task may be to encourage them to stay in education at all; for others it may be to help stabilise their mental health or wellbeing. In the academic sphere the priority may be to encourage self-discipline and the deferment of gratification – fundamental to any kind of study. Above all, teachers hope to engender a sense of enjoyment through learning, whatever the subject matter. All this on top of the more obvious requirement to help them acquire the knowledge and skill needed to progress successfully into working life. All this has to compete with the task of guiding young people in relation to their future employment.
When students do focus on their career futures, a wide range of influences bear on the decisions they have to make. Choosing subjects on the basis of their future economic value is but one, in a many cases a relatively minor one. In academic terms they may well be reacting to their experience of teaching to date, rather than the content of the subject. This is particularly so in the case of sciences where the prevalence of didactic methods and inflexible curricula can be off-putting for many, especially girls in relation to physics.[i]
Unfortunately, students in the UK have to make drastic decisions about what to cease studying at 16, whichever path they are on (less so in Scotland). My conversations with students over the years suggested that, for many, their reasons for rejecting or accepting a subject had little to do with a future working life. The freedom of the art room might help one feel secure, the opportunity for self-expression may incline another to literature or the opposite attract another to the lab. Peer group chat or perceptions about “image” may shape their ideas about what it means to work in retail, hotel management or water treatment engineering, as opposed to the media, sport or healthcare. Parental preferences and cultural or religious pressures can play a big part too, driving some towards secure professions, such as pharmacy, accountancy or the law. In general, at a stage when very few models of working lives are available to them, young people are required to make high-stakes choices too early. It’s a pity our curriculum structure does not allow them to try out a range of options in a low-stakes way and to alter their plans as their experiences develop and thinking matures. But another thing that really makes a difference is direct contact with employers. Young people hear from many influences from family to friends, but rarely from those who would end up employing them.
The key to managing these elements was to introduce thoughts about future life into all strands of the learner’s experience: the formal curriculum, informal extra-curricular activities and the pastoral curriculum. In subject teaching, whether in academic or vocational pathways, links to real working lives can be made, through careers talks from visitors from various occupations or projects relating to challenges in real workplaces, for example. Extra-curricular activities, where they still exist today, can take young people into workplaces or bring employers into the classroom, lab, workshop or studio. Schemes to organise this and to certificate it, such as ASDAN[ii] or CREST[iii] or Young Enterprise[iv] can be presented as a routine part of the offer to students.
The pastoral system at the post-16 stage can be central to successful careers work because it addresses the person as a whole. In my college, we realised that the occasional 1:1 interview with a careers officer was not enough to influence a young person significantly, let alone appropriately. Personal relationships needed to be built gradually over several years, so that fears and misconceptions can be worked on sensitively and perceptions changed in the light of information and experience. To achieve this, counselling was introduced to replace advice-giving and external careers officers were replaced by careers counsellors, appointed to the permanent staff. A comfortable room was made available for regular drop-in sessions and browsing at any time of day. Students were encouraged to engage with the Careers staff and resources as a routine part of their week by promoting the service through tutorial sessions. The idea snowballed as early-adopting students found they enjoyed talking informally about career possibilities, looking at resources and signing up for visits and internships. They sold the experience to their more reluctant peers and soon most students were routinely engaging with career-thinking throughout their 2 or 3 years at the college.
What jarred so sharply with the success of this approach was the discourse and policy measures emanating from Whitehall. In the 80s the rage was for connecting local employment opportunities directly with student choices. TECs (Technician Education Councils) were set up to garner information about vacancy rates in the local economy and to fund provision in colleges to match it. The idea was that information about the local economy would stimulate students to train in occupations with shortages. The implementation was, of course, a farce, as the policy ignored all the factors outlined above, known to influence student choice. The TECs were soon abolished – a costly misuse of resources. In later years, reducing the funding for pastoral and extra-curricular activities was an equally unhelpful policy direction.
The fundamental challenge in designing careers education systems is to find a way to blend educators’ knowledge and experience of young people with that of people representing employment. Schemes can be adopted by schools and colleges, or created locally, to achieve this, but doing so calls for a degree of mutual understanding between the parties. Teachers, who may be enamoured of their particular subject and the path they personally followed through higher education, may need to learn from employer representatives about the realities and variety of today’s workplaces. They may need to think carefully about the value of skills relevant to workplaces as well as of abstract, academic study; both can be motivating, enjoyable and enlightening. Conversely, people engaging with education from workplaces need to take on something of the complexity of motivating and advancing young people, as they contend with so many issues, cognitive and emotional, in addition to their future career choices.
The challenge for the authorities that design and fund the guidance system lies in going beyond simplistic single-stranded thinking. Good information is but one aspect of what is needed for effective careers education. Counselling, pastoral support, internships, extracurricular activities are all needed to guide young people through the maze of career possibilities and make well-informed choices.
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Education and Employers
Andrew Morris January 2020
Originally a physics teacher, Andrew later became a Deputy Director at Islington Sixth Form Centre which later merged into City & Islington College. He was responsible for Student Services which entailed overall responsibility for the pastoral system, careers and HE guidance and extra-curricular provision. He later moved into research management at the UK Further Education Development Agency (FEDA) and subsequently became Director of the National Education Research Forum, working on improving the links between research, practice and policy. He continues to work on these as an independent adviser and as chair of the Coalition for Evidence-Based education (CEBE). He is an honorary senior lecturer at the UCL Institute of Education and was appointed the 2019 President of the of the British Science Association (Education Section)
Education and employers is a charity which undertakes research on employer engagement in schools and runs the free Inspiring the Future service which gives schools access to nearly 60,000 volunteers who are willing to talk to young people about their job and career route.
[i] See Institute of Physics report: http://www.iop.org/education/teacher/support/girls_physics/review/page_41597.html
[ii] See https://www.asdan.org.uk/courses/programmes