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What should good careers advice look like?

Less than half of school leavers receive information and guidance from a careers adviser at their school or college, a new survey has found. So what should good careers advice look like? And is it likely to become a reality following the Skills Minister’s recent promises in this area?

The survey, carried out by the Association of Accounting Technicians (AAT), paints a bleak picture, with millions of young people failing to get even a few minutes with a careers specialist to help them plan their future. What’s more, the study found that twice as many school leavers (72 per cent) were aware of UCAS compared to apprenticeships (36 per cent).

Nobody expects careers advisors to be available on tap (although it would be nice), but it is reasonable to expect every student to see one at least once before they turn 16 and then again before they’re 18, with guidance tailored to meet their individual needs.

And let’s ditch the perception of careers advice as a one-off, one-to-one meeting. Parents should be involved too, particularly as research shows they play a major role in their offspring’s decision-making about further study and careers. Teachers would do well to join the party as well. Youngsters spend a lot more time with them than they ever will in a careers office. Subject teachers can be great role models in terms of attracting pupils to their subjects and the careers that come out of that.

Also essential (but, perhaps surprisingly, often lacking) is that the careers specialist has access to up-to-date career and labour market information. As Sir John Holman, former headteacher and emeritus professor of chemistry at the University of York has previously pointed out, this can have a major impact on social mobility. After all, if young people and their families know where the skills gaps are and what kind of salaries come with jobs in these areas, they’re more likely to make choices that will lift them socially and challenge their assumptions about the right job for ‘people like me.’

Work experience should be part of the package, with careers specialists able to link young people up with relevant employers. Plus, schools should be regularly inviting high-flyers across all industries to come in to talk about what they do. This is especially important when it comes to careers with outdated perceptions, such as engineering.

And let’s not lose sight of the fact that for many students, the focal point is further study rather than actual jobs. Careers advisers should be able to talk through all the options with young people, who should also get the chance to meet older students currently at (or recently having left) college, university or doing an apprenticeship – ideally who went to the same school or at least come from a similar background so that the study option feels genuinely accessible. According to AAT’s study, around one in 20 students (6 per cent) intending to complete a UCAS form they were doing so only because they had been told to complete one, while a further four per cent said they were unaware of any alternatives to the university route.

Previous studies have shown that all this doesn’t have to cost the earth, but it does need dedicated school leaders and – more importantly still – government backing, incentives and support and, we would argue, cross-party agreement to ensure longer-term stability. With the Government’s recent allocation of £4m to put dedicated career specialists in place by the start of the 2018/19 academic year, we will be keeping our eyes firmly peeled as to the results. 

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