We’re on the road to nowhere…

At this time of year, when the majority of my students are slogging their way through exams, and some are weeks away from being released into the world, I start to think about what they’re going to be doing when they get out there.

A recent blog post by Matthew Taylor has highlighted some of my concerns about the advice and help that students are receiving when it comes to deciding what to do after school.

A Tale of Two Students

Adam is 16. Now that he is at the end of year 11, he has a scheduled interview with the careers adviser at school. Adam is very clear about his ambitions for the future, and so are his parents. He is going to be a doctor. The careers adviser looks at the qualifications Adam is about to achieve and shifts uncomfortably in his seat.

“Do you know what you need to do to become a doctor, Adam?”

A pause. “Medicine degree?”

“Yeah, that’s right. To do that you’re going to need some Science A levels. Problem is, you’ve only got a BTEC in Science, and you won’t be able to get onto A level courses with that.”

“Oh.” Adam is clearly deflated. “But if I go to college, I could do the A levels there?”

“Not really. It’s not just this school, pretty much everywhere requires you to have Science GCSEs to do it at A level. Why don’t you have a look at some of the other courses you could do?”

Brian is 13. He’s in year 9, and is making choices about GCSEs. He doesn’t really care about school, and rarely makes an effort in lessons. One particularly reluctant day, I crouch next to Brian to ask him why he isn’t doing the work.

“Don’t want to. It’s boring.”

“Well, you might find it boring, but it’s still important. It’s important to do well at school so you can have whatever job you want!”

“Doesn’t matter. I’m gonna go work for my Dad anyway.”

“Well you might want to do that, but don’t you want to have lots of choices? There’s loads of jobs out there…”

Brian probably won’t think about closing doors when he chooses his GCSE subjects. He won’t consider how important it is for him to maintain a broad curriculum, or which subjects require a GCSE to be taken at A level.

Both of these children are fictional. However, their needs and attitudes are real, and shared by many others. Lack of knowledge about career pathways and post-16 opportunities is having a negative impact on the life chances of children on all parts of the ability and aspiration spectrum. Adam and Brian are both being failed by our current patchy provision of careers advice.

One of the goals of a school education is to enable students to be ready for the world of work. I want the students I teach to leave school with knowledge of the career routes available, having chosen to study subjects that keep the doors open to whatever it is they have chosen to pursue.

Good careers advice is not only helpful when students are making decisions about courses or jobs. It seems obvious that goals are essential for motivation, and yet I’m sure most students do not have a goal for when they leave school. Giving students time to think about the lifestyle they would like to have in the future (for more on this, see Cal Newport’s brilliant lifestyle-centric planning here), and showing them that there is a step by step route to achieve the kind of life they want, must improve motivation to learn.

Schools have had the legal obligation to provide careers guidance for students since September 2012. According to Ofsted, they’re not fulfilling this obligation very well. In their survey, published in 2013, Ofsted found that only 12 out of 60 schools ‘had ensured that all students received sufficient information to consider a wide breadth of career possibilities’.

This is unsurprising. Careers advice is not a priority for schools, because frankly they aren’t judged on their provision. In addition to this, few school staff have the knowledge to provide information to students. We all went to university, so we may be able to give casual advice about that route, but from personal experience I would say that knowledge about apprenticeships or more vocational routes is limited.


1) Careers advice in schools should be split into two stages: the early stage at KS3, and the later stage at KS4/5. 

The early stage, beginning at year 7, should focus on the wide range of career options available, with a goal of increasing students’ knowledge about the possibilities that are out there. While emphasising that all careers are open to all, schools will also inform students about the paths towards certain jobs- whether through degrees, apprenticeships or further education courses. By the end of year 8/beginning of year 9, students should have an idea of the sort of career they may want to pursue, and an understanding of how GCSE choices can affect this.

In KS4 and 5, the advice will take a more pragmatic approach. Now that students have made some choices about subjects, the goal is to be clear about the options available to each of them, based on their current courses and skills. This programme of study will need to be personalised, with a group of students doing independent research while an adviser speaks to individuals on a one to one basis.

2) Schools should liase with businesses and employer organisations to provide children with credible, up to date advice and insights into careers.

One key way to do this would be to make use of sector skills councils. These should be more open to collaborating with schools and representing their industry, as they have the vital information about skills shortages and routes into various careers.

In addition to this, schools should make time for careers talks from employers. These should not be one-off events with no relevance or follow up, but embedded into the ‘careers curriculum’ in point 1. Speaking about careers and the future must be part of the day to day life of the school.

3) The National Careers Service website should be made more user friendly.

The National Careers Service website is recommended by the government for use in schools.  While it contains useful information, for example detailed job profiles, it is clunky and difficult to use. With some streamlining, it could be a useful resource for careers sessions, both at the early and late stage of intervention.

It is not unrealistic to implement these changes. Most, if not all of the interventions listed above could take place within a school’s existing PSHE time. The biggest change that may need to happen is to have a dedicated careers co-ordinator, who is properly trained and given the time and resources to fulfil this role properly.

In the excellent report into careers advice published by Gatsby, eight benchmarks are recommended, along similar lines to my recommendations above. PwC estimated that the cost of implementing these benchmarks would be less than 1% of a medium sized school’s budget. That seems like a pretty good cost/benefit ratio to me.