In recent years an appearance by the Secretary of State in front of the Education Select Committee has always proved engrossing viewing not least the few times careers in schools was mentioned. The craters of destruction left by Mrs Morgan’s predecessor in front of the Committee on this subject have left many a pothole for her to stumble into so I can’t imagine last weeks session was an enticing date in the diary.
Ably handed by (a sometimes visibly exasperated) Graham Stuart, the session covered the DfE’s plans on the problems the new Careers company would solve (all of them apparently) and what problems would still be outside of its remit. The role of accountability and getting Destination Measures right loomed large, the conflict of interest caused by funding following those Post 16 bums and the role of those ever inspiring business leaders all appeared as seems to be now the norm in debates about school careers. In truth it was all a much of a muchness as Morgan said pleasant things about all the different players and parts of the school careers hotpot without actually committing to do anything differently. Indeed, the lukewarm platitudes on offer almost left me pining for Gove’s scorched earth splutter of disdain at the very mention of careers work. However misguided, at least it was a position arrived at with conviction.
The nugget in the session that the watching journalists found most newsworthy was the anecdote that some schools are now asking their receptionists to deliver careers advice. This was picked up by the BBC and the Independent as both a damming indictment of the lack of mandatory of quality standards required by the DfE and the lip service schools are seemingly paying to this work.
Alex Cunningham, the Labour MP for Stockton South, said public service union Unison had undertaken research which showed that 83 per cent of schools no longer employed professional careers advisers or teachers. The role, he added, had been “picked up by people including, in many cases, teaching assistants and other support staff who are totally ill-equipped”.
Graham Stuart, the committee’s Conservative chairman, said he had received evidence that one of the new University Technical Colleges – which specialise in vocational education for 14- to 19-year-olds – was training its receptionist to be their careers adviser “while running the reception”.
This contrast between the warm words from Morgan and the reality of decisions being made by schools is a contradiction that echoes the timelines of other education policies from the Coalition. At first freedom for schools, then criticism of provision and then the carrot/stick of new accountability measures to realign the actions taken by schools with the outcomes desired by Government. If Destination data is done right and the accountability of leavers sustained outcomes firmly included in a school’s evaluation by both the general public and Ofsted, in my view, it would go a long way to focusing school leaders efforts into providing a quality careers offer in their establishment. It wouldn’t be the whole solution, brokerage, funding, quality CPD and coherent local and national networks would all have a role to play but this view, of placing the accountability ahead of mandated standards to lead change, does seem different to other views I’ve seen on-line. It’s one based in the realism that, just because schools are told to do something, it doesn’t mean they then do it and that changing accountability measures have made distinct changes to school behaviour in the recent past.
(Incidentally, how Morgan’s claims that Destination data is getting more robust as “just 2% of the cohort were not captured in the data” fits with the statistic used by Ofsted’s Lorna Fitzjohn in her recent FE annual lecture that in some Local Authorities up to 40% of young people’s destination is unknown, I’m not sure).
Those who wish to defend and enhance the professional stature of the sector were clear that policy makers should assign prominence to careers practitioners as a panacea for the ills of the sector. The reporting of the belittling of the role of a school careers adviser seemed, to me, an exercise in finger-pointing that misses those other parts of the jigsaw I’ve mentioned above. Those support staff delivering careers programs to young people might not currently hold the relevant standard of professionalism to gain the immediate seal of approval from the sector but that doesn’t mean they won’t become brilliant careers advisers who then go onto to be trained by their school to a suitable professional standard. It doesn’t mean that, through their endeavour and determination to fulfil their careers duties well, they show the school the benefits of doing careers work properly. I hope we are not sneering at them because their immediate professional background was a receptionist or a teaching assistant but because of fears that they are being asked to fit careers work around other duties. Across the wider sector even teachers can become qualified while doing the job; certification and ‘professionalism’ don’t have to be gatekeepers, they are staging points on the journey then travelled. Of course, for this scenario to be a tale with a positive outcome the school would then be required to play it’s part in up-skilling their employee by providing resources for CPD and quality provision. That’s more likely with welcoming, persuasive and accessible offers of support and training from the national careers bodies.
Being a stickler for professional school careers appointments fails to acknowledge the wider realities of funding constraints and the lack of importance in the accountability system that isn’t leading to oven ready roles that match an ideal of professionalism. It is by far the more difficult task to challenge the wider realities which contribute to the decisions behind those type of appointments, but, in this ex teaching assistants view, it’s those realities which need challenging if we are to achieve an integrated youth careers provision in schools that can positively influence outcomes for young people.