New year, same as the old year? How a year on little has changed when it comes to careers advice in education.

As I reflect on a year’s worth of grumbling, promoting my book and going into schools and colleges it occurs to me that other than minor hair loss very little has changed. Sure the sun has risen and set, the moon waxed and waned, Trump has Trumped but otherwise the status quo has pretty much prevailed, particularly within education. We’ve seen ministers and secretaries of state be moved and shuffled, a new policy introduced and benchmarks suggested but re-reading this very post from a year ago I’m stunned by how little progress has been made and how as a populace we still broadly acquiesce to allowing sub par advice be the order of the day. So if you’ve a moment re-read this and tell me where I’m wrong.

Charles Ponzi. Bernie Madoff. Benedict Arnold. Richard Nixon. Lance Armstrong. Some copper-bottomed, hall of fame, heavy weight champions of world class liars. Their very names are synonymous with deception, lies, fabrications, flights of fancy and half truths. Notably absent from that list is ‘every school in the UK’. However, and it’s a big ‘however’, this is a catastrophic omission that everyone has been complicit in.

Okay, maybe not ‘every’ school but certainly it’s true that from time immemorial the education system has been comprehensively failing to prepare their young charges with the skills, tools and knowledge to make informed choices about their futures. The guy at my school threw a psychometric test in front of us, asked if we wanted to be lawyers and drifted off into an ante-room, the subject never to be discussed again. Corralled into university courses that serve only to line the universities’ pockets and boost the schools’ stats, there are generations of degree-qualified, directionless, unemployable young adults drifting from hairnet and name-tag to hairnet and name-tag in a series of jobs that on paper they should have left behind. Worthless degrees are almost a cottage industry in the UK and it’s been allowed to happen because of years of schools creating an atmosphere of rank terror that tells kids without a degree they may as well abandon all hope.

Banging head against a brick wall careers advice media
Getting the media to pay attention to the careers advice crisis is like banging your head against a brick wall.

Of course degrees are wonderful and schools should rightly encourage ambition, but it’s surpassed that lofty goal and become a rote exercise in getting them out the door so they can pat themselves heartily on the backs and congratulate one another on a job well done. Three years after the fact when these poor, mis-sold kids emerge from Westminster University with a degree in David Beckham and £50 grand of debt it doesn’t affect their stats so why should they give a shit right?

The crazy thing is I thought people would care about this, that they would share my outrage so I asked the schools, the parents, the LEAs, the MP, even the local paper to try and help me raise awareness, I assumed that this is an issue that they would want to solve. Turns out they really didn’t. The schools were defensive, the parents in denial, the LEAs resigned, the MP ineffectual and the local paper more interested in generating revenue than news. So now I resort to huffing and puffing on the internet like so many other frustrated keyboard warriors.

Working in recruitment and as an academic advisor I see both sides, I hear employers lament the lack of quality and I see schools making great claims about how wonderfully they’re performing. Ofsted estimates about 70% of schools are failing to give the right quality and amount of help in careers advice, The Sutton Trust concurs, as does the DfE, the LEAs and employers. In fact the only people who disagree are the schools.

Microcosmically the area I live in, I’ve contacted, spoken to or met every secondary school in the Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East regions. Several times. With the exception of private clients and a few bold schools this has yielded almost no work. Because ‘they do all this already’. Not with outside providers you understand, heaven forefend they actually engage experts in the field, no, no – they simply draw on the wellspring of their already overstretched faculty, who by the very nature of their profession, are only qualified to tell students about accessing a career in teaching. My business partner, a qualified teacher, holds qualifications in teaching English as a second language, the fundamentals of college counselling and a PhD from Columbia University and me with 14 years of getting people jobs, writing CVs, interview coaching, developing professional comportment and networking skills should quite rightly defer to a 23 year-old graduate who’s somehow ambled arse backwards into the position of Head of Careers. As well they should, given their background in teaching Geography.

Conversations I’ve had include gems like, ‘60% of our students go on to Russell Group universities.’ What about the 40% that don’t? I presume it must be even more exciting, so much so they couldn’t bring themselves to tell me. The Chair of Governors of a free school described our offering of careers and university advice as the ‘latest fad’. Yup, apparently preparing students for life after school is a passing whimsy. One school’s quick to assure me when I make contact they are on top of things because they have their DT teacher on the case. Phew. Without knowing what we can offer, the schools dismiss outside help without a second thought, such is either the level of arrogance or the wilful ignorance of how badly what they’re doing is regarded by anyone who actually knows what they should be doing. When we offered to host free seminars to let parents and students know they had options they would return to their blank-faced, unblinking menhir like ‘computer says no’ response. Unassailable, unreasonable and completely unwilling to loosen their stranglehold – the mentality seems to be one of, ‘I don’t care how badly we’re doing it, we mustn’t let anyone else try and do it better.’

We conducted a survey asking people their feelings on the provision available and what became clear was the amount of trust conferred to schools, trust that’s not been reinforced by facts or even anecdotal evidence just blind faith. We collectively have allowed them to enjoy this feted position as the guardians of our children’s futures and ceded responsibility but haven’t held them to account when it starts to unravel. They employ antiquated techniques, hangovers from a bygone era and hope that by giving kids access to a few links detailing what jobs exist they’re fulfilling their obligations. It’s beyond reckless, it’s borderline criminal.

So what can be done? Lobby the schools, push them to explain how and why they feel a woodwork teacher is the best person to tell their children how to access a career in bio-engineering or arts administration or how to study overseas, or get grants and scholarships to work in molecular biology. Ask them what qualifies them to tell kids how to write a CV or how to interview. Or how to get work experience and conduct informational interviews. Or network. Or how to construct an application for an apprenticeship or job or university personal statement. Ask them to prove that they’re one of the illustrious 30% of schools that are getting at least some of it right. If they can’t answer those questions then speak to your MP. Or read my book.

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