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The careers department, too often that neglected airless cubicle occupied by uninspiring books and a sidelined teacher, could (if it is any good) make a big difference to the value your child gets out of his or her years of education (and perhaps a good deal of your money too). What a school teaches their pupils ought to be aimed as much at the lives which will follow university as at those dreaded examinations — and the careers department ought to be a strong part of that focus. Undergraduates who started the career decision-making process at school will be likely to make better, more focused, use of their time at university, and do much better at the gladiatorial pre-graduation milk round than their unprepared counterparts.

Some schools seem to bundle the assistance that they give to pupils in choosing university courses in with ‘careers advice’, and lump the two subjects together as ‘careers and further education’. There is some logic in this for those few professions where particular subjects and degree courses are required, but for the vast majority of pupils the choice of degree will have little consequence for what they do afterwards.

Advice in state schools can be very patchy since the Government more-or-less abolished the Connexions service and left schools to provide their own advice (but with no funding to do so). A school which has begun to wake up to the benefits of good careers advice will have appointed an impressive (is your child going to follow advice from someone who is not?) ‘head of careers’, sometimes supported by a small team of helpers. Some will go to the trouble of arranging the school’s annual (or, worse, bi-annual) careers fair, rounding up recent alumni and parents to talk to the pupils (not that this guarantees coverage of the best options, or depth of wisdom). If they are doing better than this, then you are in luck.

Here are some questions for the head of careers or headteacher (or a sixth former); just pick a few that appeal to you.

  1. How do you make your pupils interesting to future employers? Have those who study sciences read a novel or learnt a language? Are your arts students numerate? How do you advise your pupils to present themselves in all respects ranging from the sartorial to the written word (letters and emails) and body language? Do you provide advice and training on CV writing and successful interview technique? After all, the job interview process normally has a significant subjective element and those candidates who have a polished CV and are skilled at interview technique will normally do better than those candidates who arrive at the interview unprepared.
  2. How do you make pupils aware of their various career options? Have they been exposed to people who understand what particular careers are really about - is there a really active programme of visits and presentations by people established in their careers? Are there established relationships with some of the outside bodies that exist to help schools with their careers provision? Are pupils really given information on options - which may not include the school sixth form, or university? How large is the careers team and what are their roles? Are they employed full-time or part-time? This should help you determine whether the school defines ‘filling in university application forms’ as ‘careers advice’.
  3. Does the school actively seek work experience opportunities for its senior pupils? If so, what is the process? How much time is spent with pupils one-to-one helping them to think about their career options? Do they programme sessions or do they sit back and ‘provide a service’ to which pupils can go to if they are sufficiently interested? Is advice offered to them about leadership qualities and the attractiveness of this trait to future employers?
  4. Does the school contact university careers departments to bridge the work that they (the school) have been doing, in order that the university careers department can continue to advise? What advice is given to pupils on the best use of their gap year for adding to their attractiveness to future employers?
  5. Now find a sixth former or two. Do their experiences with the careers department bear any resemblance to what you have just been told? What sort of advice have they been offered on choosing a course, perhaps one that they haven’t studied at school eg anthropology? Have they had good advice on writing their personal statements? Have Oxbridge/medical candidates had practice interviews and entrance exams? Have they been encouraged to aim high or to aim safe? Some of the highest ranking schools offer surprisingly little help.

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