Yesterday, the Government unveiled its long-awaited careers strategy, two years after it was first promised by the former Education Minister Sam Gyimah. Despite worries about lack of funding to implement the strategy, it has been broadly welcomed by the education sector, and for good reason: promising developments include the introduction of a careers leader in every school and college, trialling careers activities in primary schools, and supporting institutions to meet the Gatsby Benchmarks (a set of standards which define what good careers advice looks like).
The strategy also indicates a continued focus on engaging employers in careers education – a trend which began with the creation of the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) in 2014. Tasked with enhancing collaboration between educators and employers, the organisation is thought to have been backed by £70 million of Government funding. Much of this money has been spent on building a national network of Enterprise Coordinators and Advisers, which work with schools and colleges to create employer engagement plans, facilitating employers to run career talks, business challenges, and mock interview and CV workshops, along with arranging more traditional workplace visits and work experience outside of school. The strategy sets out a vision for young people to be offered at least seven encounters with employers from years seven to 13.
In principle, it makes sense for employers to have a key role in careers education. Evidence suggests that a young person who has at least four encounters with an employer (let alone the seven promised in the strategy) is 86% less likely to be NEET and can earn up to 22% more in their career. By meeting employers, pupils can get an idea of the opportunities available in their local area, while businesses can gain direct access to a talent pool, boosting their recruitment. With the addition of a devolved skills policy, greater engagement between young people and local employers could help the nation develop the workforce needed to meet the demands of the changing economy.
But the continued focus on engaging employers in careers education could prove to be at odds with another of the Government’s stated aims in the strategy: to “end the generational cycle of disadvantage” and to support people to “look beyond their immediate environment to new and exciting possibilities.” The employers who are most likely to be able to make the time to come into schools to deliver careers advice are local employers. Indeed, the benefit outlined above of using employer-led career education to address local skills shortages relies on the employers being local. While this approach might not necessarily entail any disadvantage for pupils in the capital and other big cities, where a diverse range of employers can reach different parts of the city with little difficulty, the story may be very different in rural areas, or disadvantaged towns in which a single industry dominates. It would be very difficult for a young person to “look beyond their immediate environment” and imagine the full range of opportunities open to them if that range is not reflected in the employers they see.
A further group we should pay close attention to within this approach are children and young people with special educational needs or disabilities (SEND). In the strategy, the Government itself says that it wants to break down career barriers faced by this particular group, as part of its broader commitment to reduce the disability employment gap. Yet the Department of Health’s recent green paper on work, health and disability admits that employers can be reluctant to give disabled people a chance and that further change in cultures and mind-sets is needed. A terrible outcome of giving employers such a central role in careers education would be for young people with SEND to be discouraged by meeting employers who are not disability-aware.
These are clearly risks that the Government is aware of – at least the former around lack of employer diversity. For example, it is stated that the CEC will work with Local Enterprise Partnerships to help Enterprise Coordinators in those areas with lowest uptake of STEM qualification to make sure that STEM encounters are built into careers and enterprise plans. The question is how far schools and colleges will be able to focus on engaging a broad range of employers, including STEM employers, in the context of overstretched budgets and resources – particularly given that arranging seven encounters with employers is the headline target that they are being asked to meet.
All in all, the strategy represents an important step forward and contains a good deal of ambitious thinking to deliver much needed improvements to careers advice. But the question is how it will be borne out in practice. A continued focus on engagement with employers is welcome – but not if vulnerable and disadvantaged young people are left behind.