Understanding school and college-based influencers on student choices

When discussing access and participation, one of the most frequent laments is that careers staff and teachers in schools and colleges don’t know enough about higher education, yet they are a prime group to reach in order to get across messages about the sector and its benefits. Knowledge about these roles, who the staff are and how they might be reached is sketchy, not helped by the fact that the situation has changed in within the last few years.

The government’s most recent careers strategy was published in December 2017, followed by the publication of statutory guidance for education and training providers in October 2018. Overall, the statutory guidance includes adherence to the Gatsby Benchmarks for good careers education and emphasise the importance of co-ordinated external support for careers work. The Gatsby Benchmarks will ensure minimum standards within organisations and are unquestionably useful to schools and beneficial to students. However, within the government strategy and guidance, references to higher education are few, and the implications of some of the direction are unhelpful for higher education.

Links and ‘meaningful encounters’ with employers are emphasised, with the requirement for these to take place at least once every school year for the whole school population. There is also a new legal duty to allow access to providers of technical education and apprenticeships all pupils from Y8 – Y13. In comparison, the recommendation on higher education states that by the age of 18, those pupils who are considering applying for university should have had at least two visits to universities to meet staff and students. There is no requirement for those who are not evidently considering higher education to receive detailed information. However, schools are encouraged to provide a range of opportunities for providers offering academic options, including sixth form and tertiary colleges and higher education institutions, to visit the school to talk to pupils in younger age groups. Schools are required to link curriculum learning to careers, with a special emphasis on STEM. The question here is whether curriculum teachers have enough knowledge of the range of careers available, and there is a danger that students will hear only about the traditional roles. Is this perhaps an area in which universities could get involved? Schools must ensure their students are aware of Labour Market Information (LMI), a local version of which is provided by the Jobcentre Plus ‘Support for Schools’ programme. The emphasis on the local is a disadvantage for students in areas with a limited range of options, where it is common for the main graduate employers to be education and the health service. Demand for other types of course may therefore be affected. This is a particular concern for widening participation students who often express a wish to stay local for education and who may have no other sources of information.
External support is provided for schools and colleges by The Careers & Enterprise Company, who coordinate collaboration between employers, schools, colleges, Local Enterprise Partnerships and careers and enterprise organisations, and there will be an Enterprise Adviser in each school. It is hoped that those involved would reference universities, but there is no guarantee that they will. Contact with these providers, perhaps with an offer of updating, might be a way forward. Independent careers guidance (defined as external to the school) is defined as including employer visits, mentoring, websites and helpline access and must include references to the range of education and training options, so this does include but does not specify higher education. Outreach colleagues will have frequently heard from schools declining their services that it is a matter of available time. Clearly, schools must prioritise teaching and the need to achieve higher grades, so the government advice is to combine different providers at single events to cut down on time needed. The problem here is that all too often the students must choose between providers in different rooms (or even different dates) and may not hear the higher education message.
So what of careers advisers? These days most are self-employed or employed on hourly contracts by small companies. The good news is that personal guidance must be provided by a careers professional qualified to a minimum of level 6 (and therefore including a requirement for impartiality and a minimum of 25 hours per year updating). Unfortunately, the statutory requirement is only for one personal interview by the age of 16 and the opportunity for a further interview by age 18. Guidance interviews are client-led discussions; professionals will always try to ensure that students are aware of all their options and it is not their job to persuade, but up to date information is essential. Ensuring that careers companies have knowledge of any open information services such as teacher events would be helpful. All schools must have a named Careers Leader, responsible and accountable for their schools or college’s programme of careers advice. This would be the best person to start with when approaching new schools and colleges and certainly when sending out information. It is also worth noting that destinations remain an important part of school performance tables, and Ofsted will play a part by assessing the success of a careers programme in terms of this, so universities do have a role to ply here. Most schools are keen to be involved with universities and do try to accommodate them, but understanding their perspective is helpful. A little knowledge of government requirements could assist in shaping an offer which meets the drivers for schools and so has a better chance of success.

Blog by Jackie Powell - Higher Education Consultant

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