As the general election edges closer, the coalition has used the past few months to try and sort out problem policies and reposition the narrative of its government. One little-noticed area in which there have been last-minute repairs is career guidance, with the announcement of both new funding and new regulation.
The Guardian has taken glee in highlighting every coaltion U-turn but the paper missed out career guidance from this list, where we have now seen two U-turns.
The first U-turn
In 2010, on the eve of the election, the country had one careers service for adults (Next Step) and another for young people (Connexions). The weight of international evidence favours the idea of a life-long career guidance system.
The Conservative party’s 2010 manifesto promised to establish one and: “create a new all-age careers service so that everyone can access the advice they need.”
The first minister given responsibility for careers was John Hayes. When he addressed the Institute for Career Guidance in November 2010, he said that the government would develop an all-age service that would: “build on Next Step and on Connexions because we must not lose the best of either”.
But by this point the government had already started its U-turn. Unlike Hayes, the then secretary of state for education, Michael Gove, was highly sceptical about career guidance – which he made clear in a later appearance before the Education Select Committee. So in 2011, when local authority budgets were being cut, the Department for Education issued guidance indicating that local authorities no longer had to provide career guidance. This resulted in the cutting of around £200m from Connexions and the subsequent collapse of the service.
Alongside cuts in funding, the government also reduced the regulation of the area by removing the statutory duties on schools to provide career education and work-related learning. It transferred the responsibility for career guidance from local authorities to schools in the Education Act 2011. But no funding followed, nor was there any clear guidance as to how this new duty should best be discharged.
Challenging the policy
In response to the policy changes, numerous reports and critiques were written, including by schools inspectorate Ofsted, the education company Pearson, and academics in the field. Unison, the relevant trade union, organised marches and rallies and efforts were made to engage MPs and the press. But career guidance is not a major vote winner and so struggled to get much attention.
A key turning point came with an inquiry by the Education Select Committee into the changes. In January 2013 its report concluded that the government’s policy was “regrettable” and recommended new funding and the tightening of the regulation. My own subsequent research concluded that the impact of the changes had been a reduction in the quantity and quality of career guidance.
A second U-turn
In July 2014, Gove was reshuffled from education to the whips’ office and succeeded by Nicky Morgan in what was widely seen as a conciliatory move. But Morgan’s room for manoeuvre was limited, as many of Gove’s central education reforms around academies, free schools and the curriculum had strong support from the rest of the Conservative party.
Career guidance offered an opportunity to make some friends by shifting gear on a policy that had only ever been of peripheral interest to Gove. Morgan quickly negotiated £20m funding from the Treasury and announced the launch of a new careers company in December 2014.
The purpose of the new company, which will be chaired by Christine Hodgson, chair of Capgemini UK, is rather loosely defined. It is anticipated that its focus and purpose will emerge over the next six months.
In March 2015, the government revised the existing statutory guidance for schools. The new version of the guidance is far more positive about career guidance and includes a section on the quality assurance of provision that will warm the hearts of many in the careers sector.
This second U-turn was completed just in time for the general election campaign. This means that the Conservatives go into the election as the party that both destroyed and then rebuilt (albeit on a much smaller scale) career guidance.
Elections are not won or lost on the basis of issues like career guidance. But the recent policy shift by the government does at least show that elections do enhance the capacity of civil society to be heard.
Whether career guidance will feature in the manifestos of the political parties remains to be seen. While the Labour Party has sought to make political capital out of the coalition’s failures, it has been slow to announce any alternative plans. The Liberal Democrats have been unclear as to how their plans would differ from those currently pursued by government.
Career guidance is worse in 2015 than it was in 2010. The fact that the government has begun to address this at the eleventh hour is welcome, but does not absolve it of blame. Perhaps this last U-turn will help to re-situate any debate that happens on this issue during the election and its immediate aftermath and result in policy starting to finally go forwards rather than round in circles.