Careers education: Making your mind up

Stephen Tall, Development Director at the EEF, looks at how evidence-based careers education can help young people to make informed decisions. 

What was the careers education like at your school? At my Liverpool comprehensive, there was a careers office next to the sixth form, its walls racked with dog-eared leaflets explaining our post-school options. I went in there once, for a brief ‘careers interview’ when I was 14. I can’t recall much about it, though I think I said I wanted to be a teacher (an ambition as yet unfulfilled).

In short, it was a bit hit-or-miss. And, despite the intervening couple of decades, it seems my experience is by no means untypical.

In 2010, the Coalition Government placed a legal duty on schools and colleges to provide careers education from year 8 (12-13 year olds) to year 13 (17-18 year olds). But a recent report by the Sutton Trust concluded that this was accompanied by ‘weak guidance and little help or support... which has resulted in a decline in the quality and quantity of the careers guidance available to young people in England and the emergence of a 'postcode lottery' where some young people have access to much better careers guidance than others’.

It’s likely this is a particular problem for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds, who may lack the social capital of their better-off classmates. If you don’t know (m)any family or friends who’ve studied a STEM subject at university, or who’ve become a doctor or journalist or lawyer, or who’ve got into their profession through an apprenticeship, good advice from your school will be essential in understanding (for example) which subjects to choose and what grades you’ll need to pursue your goals.

There has been a growing recognition over the past couple of years that schools need more support if the careers education they offer young people is to be consistently excellent.

In 2014, the government announced the creation of the Careers and Enterprise Company which has the aim of ‘helping [young people] make the link between their education and their futures and build the attitudes and attributes they will need throughout their careers’.

A couple of months ago, education minister Sam Gyimah confirmed the Department for Education will be publishing a comprehensive careers strategy to ‘ensure that teachers, careers professionals and employers know what the department expects of them. And, equally, that parents and pupils know what they can expect from their schools.’

And today, the EEF has announced we’ve commissioned a literature review (supported by a grant from Bank of America Merrill Lynch) to help schools make informed and evidence-based decisions about their careers programmes and approaches to employer engagement. As our chief executive Sir Kevan Collins notes, “Finding out what the evidence says about effective approaches and programmes, and their link to academic attainment, will help teachers and school leaders to make informed decisions about the advice and support they offer.”

Commissioning a literature review is (as I recently wrote here) our signal that this is an area where we think there may be an opportunity to build on the existing evidence base – and extend it – by funding independent evaluations of promising projects in order to improve our understanding of ‘what works’ in raising attainment, as well as broader post-16 outcomes for young people.

Our aim is that the answer to the question “What was the careers education like at your school?” will no longer be hit-or-miss, but reliably high-quality.