The government’s long-awaited careers strategy was published this month. Originally due in summer 2016, it was delayed after the change of government and Brexit referendum last year. Although it has been a frustrating delay, a successful careers strategy needed to consider properly the implications of leaving the European Union.
The Industrial Strategy White Paper published in November reflects a similar focus, acknowledging that the UK needs to prepare for the opportunities and challenges posed by withdrawal from the EU. Brexit could add pressure to the country’s long-standing productivity underperformance, as well as not helping skill shortages.  
So, what does the strategy mean?
Schools and colleges will be asked to use the benchmarks that the Gatsby Foundation enshrined in its Good Career Guidance in 2014. The Gatsby benchmarks assess providers’ careers provision against eight different criteria, ranging from the use of labour market information to the availability of encounters with the world of work. The government is right to claim that the Gatsby measurements are reputable and have been widely accepted as good indicators. They also provide a common framework to judge careers provision across providers.
However, there is limited guidance about how careers advice should be provided, so schools and colleges will most likely end up offering a range of guidance and support – as they do today. They will be asked to publish their own careers strategy, which will be available to parents, the wider community, and Ofsted. Although this may spur innovation (and the government will be investing £2 million to test new career programmes), there is a risk, as with local-led solutions, that provision becomes highly variable and fragmented, with worse positioned providers less able to offer good quality careers advice, opting for low-cost alternatives.
The government has pledged to invest £4 million to train staff to become career leaders and support at least 500 schools and colleges, especially in disadvantaged areas. If the £4 million funding is to be distributed among the 500 providers, this would average £8,000 per school, probably covering training for existing staff – a welcome step, but unlikely to have an enormous impact. Previous EPI research has found that teaching workforce in England is working very long hours for international standards, resulting in a high turnover. In that context, adding more responsibility to current staff could exacerbate existing issues.
The government will also invest £5 million to develop 20 new career hubs in areas where additional support is more need. This additional funding will support the Careers and Enterprise Company to bring schools, colleges, universities and other organisations together. This is a welcome measure, although it will be important to evaluate whether the funding is enough to create and strengthen networks. It will be crucial that the funding is maintained in the long term, which is not mentioned in the strategy, and that career hubs are designed to fit well with existing structures such as Local Economic Partnerships.
A joint BIS and Education Subcommittee report in 2016 called for careers education to become part of the curriculum, rather than providing it separately. This recommendation was echoed in our recent report on skills, Educating four our Economic Future report, published in October. However, the government has not gone that far. This measure would probably have required yet more funding to retrain teachers to provide careers education in the classroom as part of any subject’s syllabus.
It is evident that the careers strategy has been written with one eye on the Post-16 Skills Plan, and that the government expect this plan to play a crucial role in making the value of technical education clear to young people. The fact that Ofsted will be inspecting the institutions’ careers strategies could help guarantee that providers present students with the full range of post-16 choices, beyond academic routes. The requirement for schools to invite technical education providers to engage with students will be met with satisfaction by many. On the flip side, the careers strategy relies on students being willing to access the new resources available to them, especially online. It is a good step that more labour market and destinations data will be used to help students make well-informed choices, but it will be critical that the information is understood by the young people most in need of advice.
Overall, this is a welcome and necessary careers strategy. It builds on the reputable benchmarks set by the Gatsby Foundation and rightly attempts to target disadvantaged students and areas that are in greater need of better career advice provision. The fact that Ofsted will inspect individual careers strategies shows commitment from the government to ensure quality across the sector. However, it risks putting an additional burden onto providers that are already struggling, especially if funding is not sustained over time. There can also be no over reliance on young people accessing information on their own initiative, especially without support to navigate the guidance meaningfully. It is crucial that, when the new technical routes are in place, the careers strategy is up and running to guarantee that the value of technical education is clear to students.