Face 2 Face IAG

Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals – Nudging to better CEIAG outcomes


I’ve posted before about the work of the Behavioural Insights Team (previously known as the Government nudge unit) and their work on designing and implementing changes to frameworks and procedures in the public and private spheres that result in greater positive gains.

Behavourial Science is a field with significant overlap in supporting CEIAG work. How young people make decisions at important transition points, why they aspire to certain routes, how people make and then stick with plans to enact change in their circumstances are all questions which mesh with Careers work both at the strategic, Government message level enacted via the Careers & Enterprise Company and at the much smaller, individual careers guidance sessions with clients level.


Two of the team members are the latest to publish a book about their work. How “Think Small: The Surprisingly Simple Ways to Reach Big Goals” differs is that is takes the lessons from the big strategic projects the Insights Team have worked on and shows how the behavioural science theories then can be applied by individuals to their own circumstances.

As a read, I found the tone of book accessible but very convinced by the infallibility of behavioural economics as a science. They may have good reason to with the recent award of the Nobel Prize to Richard Thaler, but the absence of any mention of traditional psychological work or evolutionary science to explain behaviour and decision making is noticeable. Also obvious is the much repeated technique of involving the lives of the authors or their office colleagues to show how behavioural change techniques work for real people. While this is useful once or twice to show practical implications, by the fifth or sixth time the reader is hearing about Owain’s plan to balance his extremely well paid job with more exercise and the demands of his home life, your sympathy and interest does wane.

Spread throughout the book though are some fascinating nuggets that Careers practitioners could (and many probably already do to some extent) incorporate into practice.

For individual clients

Practitioners will know that an action plan should not merely be a wish list of future achievements but realistic steps which are time limited. This has shown to be effective for individuals across a wide range of public policy initiatives

Making a simple plan that sets out when, how and where you are going to follow through on your intentions has been shown to be effective at helping people to eat more fruit, increase public transport use, reduce discrimination, get more exercise, diet, improve academic performance, quit smoking and recycle more.

but for individuals the key seems to be linking actions to regular moments in a daily routine

you’re much more likely to follow through on the things you need to do to achieve it if you create a simple plan. And the best way of doing this is to create connections between moments in your daily routine and the actions you need to take.

and asking clients to write these action points down themsleves

The first, simple step, is to do exactly what the individuals in the re-running of the experiment did: write your commitment down.

Asking clients details of their daily routines to link commitments to is more the kind of intervention that a life coach would make rather than a careers practitioner but I could certainly see how a simple change towards the end of a guidance interview of asking the client to write their action points down themselves could drastically enhance the impact of that interview.

For longer term or returning clients, a practitioner may want to investigate more of the cycle of actions that “Think Small” proposes to spur change and adherence to that change.


  • Choose the right goal
  • Focus on a single goal and set a clear target and deadline
  • Break your goal down into manageable steps


  • Keep it simple
  • Create an actionable plan
  • Turn the plan into habits


  • Make a commitment
  • Write it down and make it public
  • Appoint a commitment referee


  • Put something meaningful at stake
  • Use small rewards to build good habits
  • Beware of backfire effects


  • Ask for help
  • Tap into your social networks
  • Use group power


  • Know where you stand in relation to your goal
  • Make it timely, specific, actionable and focused on effort
  • Compare your performance with others


  • Practice with focus and effort
  • Test and learn
  • Reflect and celebrate success

Some of those steps are common sense which any educator asking for improvement from a student would implement but steps such as “Put something meaningful at stake” (the book gives the example of wearing a rivals football shirt for a day at the office) can add a level of social fun that you can easily see working in practical situations with clients.

For cohorts

Many practitioners will also run group sessions for learners or work with year group cohorts. The book references studies that I’ve previously posted about that showed that sending letters of encouragement to high achieving young people in Year 12, “penned” by students from similar backgrounds, increased the number of applications and acceptances to Russell Group universities.  What may come as a blow to Careers practitioners though are the findings that presentations of data or talks

about the long-term benefits of attending university – are not effective. What does seem to work is pupils hearing about what it’s like to go to university from former pupils; such pupils inevitably dwelt on the lifestyle benefits as well as future career prospects.

In these instances it is the authenticity of the person delivering the message that seems to have the impact on learners rather the (ahem) more impartial or informed Careers practitioner. The lessons for practitioners is to ensure that their program of alumni engagement is collecting contact details and that a pool of ex students are ready to be approached to revisit their old haunts and deliver sessions to current learners alongside the impartial delivery. It is their stories that will help snowball your positive destination outcomes.

For us all

Careers practitioners will regularly speak to clients about the value of work and how different values appeal to different clients in finding job satisfaction and happiness at work. It seem though that a constant is there

if you rate your relationship with your boss one point higher on a ten-point scale, it is statistically equivalent to a 30 per cent pay rise

You have to find a good boss.


I would say that the book has some good lessons for CEIAG practitioners but readers should always be keeping in mind the wider literature around careers theory and social mobility. “Nudges” are clearly based upon interesting and provable behavioural science but the reasons that the State would employ such techniques (ease, low cost for return etc) are the opposite of the time intensive, personal service that CEIAG practitioners strive to offer clients.


The power of role models on education pathways choice

Much of the recent focus in CEIAG has been on growing the evidence base (and so being able to bend the policy ear) of the benefit of employer interactions on pupil’s employment and earning outcomes. Meanwhile the other side of the CEIAG practitioner coin of inspiring pupils to transition onto successful future education pathways has been left to happen purely on its perceived value. This is often achieved through similar activities such as site visits, taster type activities, assemblies and visiting speakers so it is interesting to see the growing evidence base for what type of provision is most successful in this area as well. The Behaviour and Insights Team have now published two studies which boost the evidence base for two practices in encouraging young people to apply to high tariff Universities

  1. That letters of encouragement to Year 12s from older students from similar backgrounds increased applications and acceptances to Russell Group Universities

and a more recent publication that shows that talks and mentoring sessions from current students at high tariff Universities also encourage higher application and acceptances rates at high tariff institutions. Any CEIAG provision requiring role models is time and commitment intensive which is a step change from their previous work on arm’s length interventions.

That these types of provisions work isn’t going to be much of a surprise to a CEIAG practitioner, it’s bread and butter stuff, but I found the four-year study interesting because of the positive impact the talks and mentoring had on the applications from disadvantaged backgrounds and also the age of students with which the provision had the most impact. The study showed that the outcome impact on acceptances was much higher for students in the program who were studying at FE or Sixth Form Colleges than those in schools.

insights team1

The working paper speculates that this finding could be a result of

college environments, which typically contain more students, are less conducive to personal support for application to university and selective university in particular. Alternatively, it could be that the selection of students into these further education colleges is a relevant factor. Because colleges offer a wider variety of courses, it could be that students who select into these institutions are interested in pursuing less typical careers and may not be aware of the benefit or options for university in the absence of our intervention.

Which reminds the practitioner around the dangers of stereotyping. Leaving aside the type of educational institution the young person was attending, it’s interesting to see that in-depth provision such as offering role models can still have large impacts with this age group. Practitioners will know that by 16-18 young people can be blinkered in their belief of the possible future pathways that are suitable for them. By this age, their horizons have been defined by the family, school and societal pressures around them. As the working paper describes

the concept of ‘social norms’ can explain how, by seeking to emulate the attitudes and actions of those in their social group, students adopt the idea that academic education is ‘not for them’

and this is just one of the modifiers of future plans. The study also follows previous findings that information giving is not enough to alter student plans as

information-only interventions have proven ineffective at encouraging college application behaviour. This is convincingly demonstrated by a randomised controlled trial in which over 1 million US students were targeted with emails and letters about the financial support available to college applicants. Despite the scale of this trial, it was found to have no discernible impact on college enrollment

This may lead practitioners to speculate that horizon broadening should occur at an earlier age but by KS5, more intensive interventions are needed.

I also found the study interesting as it adds to other psychological studies which show that once formed, a person’s impression of a situation can be remarkably perseverant, even when irrefutable facts or evidence is then produced which disproves the individuals stated belief. The reasons for this psychological trait and the many concerning consequences of it are covered in this fascinating New Yorker piece, “Why Don’t Facts Change Our Minds.”

The theory of cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber that irrational beliefs persist because reason evolved due to our need to live in collaborative groups

Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves,” Mercier and Sperber write. Habits of mind that seem weird or goofy or just plain dumb from an “intellectualist” point of view prove shrewd when seen from a social “interactionist” perspective

This roadmap in our minds left over from evolution leads to confirmation bias (or in Mercier’s and Sperber’s terms “myside” bias) which is all to the benefit of winning arguments

This lopsidedness, according to Mercier and Sperber, reflects the task that reason evolved to perform, which is to prevent us from getting screwed by the other members of our group. Living in small bands of hunter-gatherers, our ancestors were primarily concerned with their social standing, and with making sure that they weren’t the ones risking their lives on the hunt while others loafed around in the cave. There was little advantage in reasoning clearly, while much was to be gained from winning arguments.

One can easily imagine this effect leading to the “social norms” constraints mentioned in the Behaviour Insight’s paper limiting young people’s percieved realistic choices. Wishing to retain standing within their social group and not stand out results in young people building their own beliefs and arguments for not pursuing less trodden routes no matter the weight of evidence provided to them that those less traveled paths could be more beneficial to them.

That this and previous studies on mentoring interventions can overcome these inherent traits is very interesting. Introducing role models into a young persons social sphere injects new views and so shifts the framing of acceptable/not acceptable choices and how they are perceived. It alters the height of the parapet of which the young person is comfortable sticking their head above.

When dealing with perhaps even more ingrained beliefs, it is why mentoring is so central to the Prevent Strategy and the work to reintegrate those with extremist views.

I would suggest that the practical outcomes from these studies and the associated cognitive science for the CEIAG practitioner thinking about pathways provision would be:

  1. Information signposting is not enough to impact choices
  2. Provision that does (role models, mentoring) is in-depth
  3. Never stereotype your pathway focus for different groups
  4. Hold onto the contact details of successful and varied alumni so that they can become the role models and repeat the cycle





The demise of Plotr and what free online CEIAG diagnostic tools are left

With news that the Plotr website is finally shutting down and merging with Start Profile (itself a brand of U-Explore) I thought I would give a rundown on the variety of free online CEIAG diagnostic tools available and see if readers have their own links and views to share.

Plotr came onto the scene back in 2012 with the backing of the then Skills Minister, Matthew Hancock who considered it as

an excellent example of employers coming together, to create an innovative website allowing young people to really understand what employers offer

Others in the Careers community were not so sure as the new website received significant financial backing from central Government with an initial £700,000 from the Cabinet Office and the (then) Department for Business Innovation and Skills

and launched without public tender or consultation from the sector bodies. I remember from conversations at the time, Careers colleagues were distinctly unimpressed with the lack of co-ordination with professional or non-profit organisations that were already working in the space and the fact that the first CEO, Andrew Thompson, was a Director at the then Government’s favoured outsourcing firm Serco did not sit well.

In 2014 another £1.3m was injected by BIS for a revamp which included the diagnostic tool “The Game.” This was an exhaustive set of questions based on psychometric research that suggested job roles to the skills and abilities suited to the young person answering the questions. As a CEIAG tool it wasn’t great but it was free and, with a lot of assistance, you could get results out of it to talk through with a young person.

The company behind the site actually went into liquidation back in October 2016 and the obituaries for it written at the time weren’t pretty. As the Buzzfeed report details, the significant taxpayer investment did not produce anything like the engagement or traffic statistics from its target audience hoped for so the initial employer buy-in soon frizzled out.

Which all leaves Careers practitioners with what available free diagnostic resources to use?

Start Profile

After registering, students can access 4 areas (My Skills, My Interests, My Qualities & My Work Preferences) to enter their responses. This information is then used to suggest courses, qualifications, study locations and jobs that might fit.

start profile

Requiring students to register before using the site has its positives and negatives. As a practitioner, you can register and then monitor your students work but the sheer faff of getting a class or even individuals to sign up and then check their email account for confirmations is off-putting. Students can also search by Job Sectors. It’s cleanly laid out as a site that seems easily navigable to me, the job suggestions make sense from the information inputted and, with a cursory tour, the course information at providers seems up to date.

National Careers Service Skills Health Check

Still hosted on the plain .GOV.UK platform, the National Careers Service website is a sorry state these days. The Skills Health Section is not a tool I would advise for use for young people, it’s simply too exhaustive. Adult clients of mine have used it and found useful feedback in the Skills Report produced once the numerous question sections are completed but to complete the entire check requires a significant time commitment.

skills health check

It is not something I would suggest that could be completed in a session with a client, they would need to complete this in their own time for a discussion of the findings to take place at a later date.

The Skills Report suggests job areas that may be of interest which you can then click-through to the National Careers Service Job Profiles to further explore. The results of the Activity Skills sections can need some tact when discussing with clients who find those academic tasks more difficult.

ICould Buzz Quiz

At the opposite end of the time commitment needs is the ICould Buzz Quiz. This is a quick set of either/or questions that then suggests jobs through the bank of videos on the site and assigns the user a personality type.


I have found the quick questions, videos and fun outlines of the personality types extremely successful when working with Key Stage 3 children or those with Special Educational Needs. Some of the skill terminology can need explaining to young ears (a “cold” personality doesn’t mean you’re always shivering) but these discussions can be beneficial in identifying skills and descriptive language. The lack of information inputted by the user though can be an issue, some of the suggested jobs can seem quite random and not allied to the interests of the young person at all. This can cause them to lose faith in the whole exercise so caution is advised. When leading groups, headphones are also required.

Prospects Job Match

Still in beta testing mode, this Prospects offer can be attempted without registering but the later stages of the job recommendations are only accessible after signing up. After 26 questions which are very on the nose (“Do you understand the law?”) and use language aimed at the graduate target market of the site, the user’s skill set is matched against job families. The user can then click-through to the recommended job profiles. I personally find the job profiles section excellent and use it regularly in one to one sessions, each profile has comprehensive and clearly written information on the skills required and duties likely to be encountered as well as the qualifications required. The links to associated job boards or industry organisations are also extremely useful and have broadened my bookmarks of useful sites to use with clients.



Pearson Career Interests Quiz

Similar to a section of the now defunct Plotr Game, the user is asked to rate duties in order of preference or select their top three most appealing tasks from a list. The questions are easy to understand and a typical student could rattle through them in 15 minutes. Some of questions require the statements to be moved into priority order and the design is all very intuitive. On completion of the questions, users are shown a sector matching chart


in which users can click on the sectors to encourage skill comparison but actual job titles or profiles are not then mentioned. Job profiles are held elsewhere on the site so why this connection is not made is strange and a real negative. Young people need to see what job titles fall into what sectors to begin to make connections between them and investigate what those jobs are, not making this link explicit is odd.

Skills Route Explore

Asks users to enter courses they are studying and suggests jobs associated with that course

skills explorer

so it’s fairly reductive and is not good at highlighting transferable skills. The job profiles then linked through as also fairly basic with little in the way of description that would help a young person understand what was involved. The charts showing the likelihood of automation, job satisfaction and wage are neat ideas but the job satisfaction one especially needs context as the average for all jobs is only 32% (it seems the data these charts is based upon asked a lot of unhappy people at work!).

Diagnostic tools are useful conversation starters when dealing with younger clients or those considering a complete career change and the more options you have to use in your toolbox, the more likely you are to use the right one for the right client. If there are any I’ve missed, please link in the comments below and let me know what you think about it!




Being online means, occasionally, companies and providers of services will get in touch to promote their Careers Education related products or ask for advice.

Last academic year I gave some time, alongside other Career Leaders and the CDI, to help the team at Grofar develop their Careers management platform. The Managing Director, James, visited me at my old school a number of times to test out new features and get feedback on how these would work in the practical day to day life of a school. I saw this week that the team at Grofar have been shortlisted for a CDI Career Development Award in the “Best Practice in the Use of Technology in Career Development” category. This is a deserved accolade as I saw how many iterations of the software the team worked through to shape the features of the final product to be as responsive as Careers Leaders in schools need it to be.

Grofar is a complete careers program management product. It is a database and recording tool, a planning and mapping tool, a central hub for all of the desk based stuff a Careers Leader in a school or college would do.

It allows you to plan your academic year of career events and provision, add to it as things pop up throughout the year, see where the gaps in your provision for each year group or subject area lie so to improve on for next year and then have your plan ready to show senior leaders or Ofsted at the touch of a button.

It allows you to integrate student data from CSV files or SIMS, track interventions for each student and send out meeting reminders through student emails. Destinations of leavers can be tracked and reports generated. Alumni records can be kept to use as a resource in future.

It can also help with the organisation and paperwork trail needed to secure properly vetted work experience placements if the school runs such a scheme.

In short, it offers to replace those folders of excel workbooks neatly saved on your school or college shared drive and post it notes stuck all over your monitor and school planner with a joined up record keeping and planning platform.

This isn’t free though and comes with a cost that Grofar do not want to make easily findable on their Pricing page. (I only vaguely remember what James said they would be aiming for).

To my mind, it’s frankly amazing that there are still companies out there willing to commit time and funds to developing careers products for an education system that is running on financial empty. Combine that with the wide range of free resources that can be found with a bit of research, then each sale must feel like pushing a boulder over a mountain. If you’re at a school that does purchase an annual licence for computer software or regularly buys physical products such as magazines or books, do let me know in the comments below as it’s good to hear the reasons why this is helping your practice and students in your setting.

A number of suppliers offering Careers products to schools still exist, Cascaid probably being the most well known who offer a range of both physical and computer products. But U-Explore, Trotman & Prospects Educational Resources also offer a number of physical & computer products.

All of these firms and more will be offering their wares at the National Career Guidance Roadshows coming up through February & March 2017 for you to go along and compare their products. For how long, there remains a market with funding able to allocate to such products, remains to be seen.

(This blog is not a sales pitch, I’ve included the links to Grofar so you can see for yourself the capabilities and layout of their product. You know your school budgets and priorities so, as a practitioner, you can make your own mind up where to allocate your resources.)


Apprenticeships & KS4 &KS5 students from ethnic minority backgrounds

Released this week was a slew of data on the destinations of 2015 Key Stage 4 & 5 leavers that provides nerds like me hours of interesting noodling about in excel. There’s plenty to get through, not only focusing on the number of students taking up each type of route but also on the characteristics of those students.

This post looks at the trend from the data (now going back to 2010, although breakdowns that include ethnicity only start in 2012) in the percentages of  KS4 & 5 leavers of different ethnicities going into apprenticeships. The charts below detail both the percentage of all leavers in that year accessing apprenticeships and the percentage of students from each named ethnic background accessing apprenticeships.



The first thing to notice is that these percentages are comparatively small compared to other routes. The 6% of KS4 students starting apprenticeships is well below the 38% starting an FE College and another 38% starting a school Sixth-Form. That 6% equates to approximately 34,000 young people while the 7% of KS5 leavers equates to approximately 25,400 students from this age group.

For all the talk from policy makers as apprenticeships solving youth employment concerns, it is largely the growth of 25+ apprenticeship starts that has allowed the previous Government’s target of 2 million to be reached. The starts of those under 19 are inching up, as evidenced by the slow growth in the Total bars in the chart above and this chart


from The House of Commons Library.

and this year 130,000 under 19s commenced an apprenticeship. This is more than double the (approx) 50,400 combine leavers above which shows that many young people are accessing apprenticeships after the first two terms (the definition used by the destination statistics) after leaving their KS4 & KS5 providers.

What seems to be happening though is that the apprenticeship route is failing to find much growth with students from ethnic minority backgrounds straight out of school and college. While their White peers are eking up the percentage of students from that background pursuing this route, the percentage of black or Asian students is either stalled or lagging behind.

This is not to say that the numbers of students from these backgrounds taking apprenticeships has not increased, it has


but that, as a percentage of the total number of students from each of those backgrounds leaving KS4 & KS5, their progression is being outpaced by their White counterparts.

The reasons for this are going to be numerous and complex for different groups.

In Luton we have a diverse student cohort drawn from the local community and this wider trend in apprenticeship progression is reflected in the 2015 destination figures of the town. Of the four schools with highest percentage of students whose first language is not English (from Icknield High School at 64.9% to Denbigh High at 94.6%), only one reaches a 4% progression rate to apprenticeships while the figures of two of the others are so small they are suppressed to protect confidentiality. There is an attainment factor in play here, all four of those schools are in the top six in the town for academic progress. 86% of Denbigh’s leavers progressed to the local Sixth-Form college. The reasons for this huge majority are not only that these students (and their families) see this route as desirable but that the grades they have achieved make that route available. We also know that, comparably, white working class students (particularly boys) underachieve in their academic progress and so, find academic routes Post 16 harder to access. Does this mean that this ethnic group has fewer routes to pursue, so a greater percentage opt for apprenticeships?

Is the fact that the majority of apprenticeships on offer are at qualifications levels perceived to be accessible to (slightly) lower academic achievers but not offering challenge or progression to higher academic achievers a dissuading factor?


Another favourite tactic from policy makers when discussing destinations is to revert to the safe waters of “a lack of aspiration” for low progression figures but I’ve blogged in the past about this is a sound bite hiding a more nuanced situation. Could it be that students from White backgrounds actually have greater social capital around apprenticeships and are more able to access the networks of support to gain a foothold into this route?

Whatever the reasons, it seems that schools and colleges are not currently impacting on the trend for students from Asian and Black backgrounds to access apprenticeships despite a current, diverse advertising campaign. The numbers of young people of all backgrounds accessing apprenticeships needs to increase but the messages are so far struggling to reach all of the students in our schools.

Moments of choice

The emergence of evidence led research to direct careers policy in recent years has been a welcome branch of a wider evidence led trend across educational policy making. Using longitudinal data to not only show that employer faced careers interventions have positive outcomes but also to pinpoint the wage premium value these type of interventions have had has been a hugely persuasive headline for policy makers.

Keen to show that they are fulfilling one of their briefs to “show what works,” the Careers & Enterprise Company recently released a research paper “Moments of Choice – How education outcomes data can better support informed career decisions”. The document is based on two pieces of research: 1) an 84 page commissioned report also called “Moments of Choice” by the Behavioural Insights Team and 2) a piece of work by PricewaterhouseCoopers which looked at the current landscape of careers information providers.

The work of the Behavioural Insights Team is fascinating as it mixes psychology, sociology and economics to enable the state (or now that it is a standalone company, any paying client) to get the reaction from the public they desire. When the Department of Health wanted more people to join the organ donor list or HMRC wanted more people to pay their taxes on time, it was the Behavioural Insights Team they called. The potential overlap of Behavioural Economics and nudge theory to the student CEIAG process in schools is obvious and the scope for young people to make decisions and choices that are more informed and considered is huge.

The Insights Team research is based on a small number of interviews with young people and career professionals and a number of round-table events attended by a range of stakeholders. I attended one of those round-tables and noted at the time just what a task the Team had undertaken

and, looking back, it was stark just how misunderstood the event was by the stakeholders attending. The aim of looking at all of the influencing elements of career choice was too nebulous a concept for many to engage with or too wide for those only attending to reinstate their patch.

This complexity extends into the source research report but essentially outlines the following:

  • That, for each young person, a huge variety of contextual factors play differing roles in shaping their views on their careers possibilities. Parents, socio-economic background, peers, media and social media and other trusted adults can all play some part in a young person constructing a flight path and dismissing non desirable destinations
  • That the sheer number of possible options open to young people leads to a wealth of information across multitudes of providers. This wildly confusing landscape causes young people to retract and be hesitant to engage and prefer to stick to well trodden paths. They struggle to find information that they think will aid their decisions and find the information impersonal and hard to contextualize to their own lives.

Throughout the document popular behavioral psychology writers such as Daniel Kahneman are referenced (and the work in his book “Thinking, Fast & Slow” on decision bias and different judgement systems is very pertinent) but it was the work of Barry Schwartz that sprung to my mind.

Who theorizes that

  • A choice architecture system with many options to choose from can cause paralysis especially when the choices have been built up to be ‘important’
  • And that, the variety of choice leads the individual to believe that there must a choice that is a perfect fit for them. When the choice disappoints, the dissatisfaction for the individual is greater as they curse their (or the advice frameworks) inability to find the ‘correct’ choice for them (Which many would agree is consistent with the stereotypical adult reflection on past careers interventions).

To my mind though, it is noticeable that some elements you would expect at least a passing reference to are missing from the Insights Team report. When looking at how young people engage with career decisions, it is odd that any reference to the wealth of publications on career theory is absent. As anyone who has waded through Unit 3 of the Level 6 careers qualification will attest, plenty has been written on careers theory. Perhaps this decision was taken as the report only focuses on a specific age section of the employability journey while career theory can take a more holistic approach. Even then though, there is much the Team could have taken from Holland (1997), the importance Super’s (1953) Life Span theory places on “self concept shaped by feedback by the external world” or Gottfredon’s (1981) theory of Circumscription and Compromise considering the Career Enterprise Company’s overall aim of improving social mobility. There is also the disregard for the kind of career trajectory that Krumboltz’s Happenstance theory outlines. For a report whose aim is to outline an architecture that places the choices of individual as the author in control of their story, it is perhaps understandable but still striking to omit a theory which proposes that it is not even desirable for this to be the case.

There is also the lack of reference to the psychology of habit. Career decisions are not taken by individuals as single events in a vacuum. The habit loops of an individual will already be affecting their engagement with education and possible adult influencers well before career choices are tasked to be made. The work of Charles Duhigg and the concept of feedback loops


could have added value and helped place the behavioral psychology of choice into the wider context of a young person’s experience and how to positively interject into this.

Published simultaneously was the response to the research by the Careers & Enterprise Company which contains proposed actions such as disseminating further research and data such as longitudinal earnings figures to help individuals make more informed decisions. They also propose to convene an experts group to spread ‘advice’ statements on what works. The Company also sees a remit for itself in communicating advice to schools and CEIAG practitioners,

We will highlight key messages, alerting schools and colleges to the types of conversations that young people should be having and when they should be having them; the types of information they should consider in those conversations; the mistakes that young people typically make and, perhaps most importantly of all, the things that they do not need to worry about.

but that it

does not intend to provide individual advice to young people or create information tools designed to produce individualised recommendations. Our focus will be solely on high level advice i.e. advice that is true for large numbers of people.

This is slightly ironic considering the preceding thoughtful passages on ‘choice architecture’,

Personalisation is central to the creation of good choice architecture in complex scenarios. Personalisation means the degree to which the construction of choice sets and information sets is determined by what is known about an individual. Zero personalisation occurs when everybody has access to the same information and has to identify what is relevant to them. Weak personalisation occurs when information sets are created which are relevant to very large numbers of ‘average’ people – for example when information about career choices tells you about the average for a whole population of people entering into a particular career.

Which covers the nub of a paradox in the current UK Careers structure for young people. Distilling advice on the choices of individuals managing a trajectory through a hugely complex system such as the transition through education to work and beyond into career will only result in impersonal generalised statements. The report discusses the possibility of careers personalisation for young people being delivered by websites programmed with similar algorithmic processes to Amazon recommends. It acknowledges though that the bulk of responsibility of personalisation comes from the interactions with professionals involved in the day by day careers conversations, group work, trips and lessons designed to aid those young individuals. It is that very part of the process which, for all its strategic work with Enterprise Advisers and cold spot funding, the Company will remain at arm’s length from.

The tightrope of generalisation is even there, tripping up the Company in the Executive Summary

However, we can identify choices as ‘poor’ if, on clearly defined criteria such as ‘likelihood to increase earnings’, an individual has made a choice on a misconception

which fails to acknowledge that a misconception does not automatically lead to failure. A learner could choose a course on false information, love that course, be nourished by meeting like-minded people on that course and find happy, fulfilling work in the course area after graduating. A choice based on ‘wrong’ information can still turn out ‘right’: it’s a complex world and, as with general medical advice, there are always exceptions to the rule.

All of the strands of the Careers & Enterprise Company’s work can drive engagement between young people (and parents) and exploring careers decisions; bringing businesses into schools can illuminate job roles, publishing earnings data can lead to greatly informed decisions, sign posting ‘approved’ advice and notifying important calendar times can all help clear the fog of the unknown. It is though, the balances to strike between acknowledging complexity and simplification, between generalisation and personalisation and good advice and diktat that the Careers Company will have to find to succeed.

Hat tip to Tristram’s blog for bringing this report to my attention.


More Careers inquiry fandango

Recent weeks have seen not one but two sessions on CEIAG held by the joint Education & Business sub-committee. In fact, due to Ministerial illness, a third is soon to come. What a time to be alive.

The first session, with witnesses from the CDI, Careers England, AELP and the West Midlands LEP, was not broadcast as it was held away from the Westminster estate so only a written record has been published while the second session, with witnesses from the Careers Enterprise Company, the National Careers Service and Ofsted, is online for your viewing pleasure.

Across these two sessions there’s a couple of things which peaked my interest.

  1. The CDI are treading very carefully around the funding issue

Suggesting that HE Widening Participation funds be funneled off to help fund careers support might be an idea with merit and fit as a solution to the dropout data but asking funding to be directed from another strand of the social mobility levers isn’t without downsides. Careers work with young people is something that a Government should see as a stand alone good and fund as such. In the current climate, asking Government for cash is a sure fire way to be swiftly shown the meeting room exit door which makes persuasion harder but it shouldn’t be dodged because of this.

The confusion over strategic funding ideals and what this funding gets spent on (see point 5) is also exacerbated by the strong call from all witnesses for Careers Quality Marks to be an integral part of any recommendations put forward by the Committee. This would come with a significant cost for schools currently under huge financial pressure (plus the forthcoming evidence toolkit will surely weaken the argument for quality awards even further, but that’s another blog). The issue of funding needs a joined up message from the CDI and not left to other unions.

2. The National Careers Service offer for young people isn’t being held to account 

Around the 16.30pm mark Joe Billington, the Director of the National Careers Service, is asked how many young people have used the phone service but the conversation is diverted and the answer never comes. The most recent data shows that just 4% of the 25,000 telephone users of the service were 19 or under (page 19). That isn’t enough.

3. Generally, the MPs didn’t seem very well briefed

Around the 16.38pm mark, a number of the MP’s seem shocked to learn that a wealth of data on skills mismatches and employer views on the employability of young people was already readily available even before the Careers Enterprise Company used it to form their “cold spots” map. Both the UKCES Employer Perspectives survey and the annual Employer Skills survey have this information in droves. That these MPs, on this specific sub-committee, looking at this specific issue, were not aware of this is baffling. Amanda Milling MP then goes onto ask about the interaction between business and schools, it’s true that a lot has been published on this subject but, at the very least, could she not be aware of the work from the department she is meant to be scrutinising?

4. Relying on Ofsted to be the all knowing overseer of careers work in schools is a busted flush

They don’t have the time, the capacity nor the inspection framework to do it. It isn’t happening on the scale it needs to now and, with the ongoing move to a school lead system and a new Chief Inspector to be appointed, won’t in the future.

5. This is a lot of strategic stuff without asking, “Day to day, who’s talking to young people?”

For all of this talk about “umbrella” organisations, Quality Marks and websites not a lot of time or attention seems to be focused on who is actually going to enabling this provision for and with young people. To their credit, the CDI are clear in their expectation of suitable CPD and qualification status for professionals and the work of the Careers Enterprise company will help provision levels. Helping schools focus on, fund and find time for careers work to happen seems to be the roll your sleeves up work though nobody wants to roll their sleeves up for.

Side note – If I was a tinfoil hat wearing type I would also note that, last year, the revamped careers duty for schools was released on the 25th March and the Guidance the year before that on April 14. Postponing the Ministerial witness session to beyond those dates this year could allow them to appear in front of the Committee with a new document to offer.