Inspire children with good careers advice and they do better at school

What are my options? Student via gpointstudio/shutterstock

We ask young people to make a lot of life-changing decisions. At 13 or 14 you choose GCSE subjects. Make the wrong choice and you could be ruling out your chance to pursue medicine or a number of other science and technology occupations. At 16, young people make choices about the area that they want to specialise in and whether they want to pursue vocational or academic tracks. At 18, there are still more decisions about whether to go to university or not and again what to focus on.

Think about yourself at 14, 16 and 18. Did you have enough information, experience and direction to make these choices wisely? Would a bit more support and advice have been useful?

In a new report for the charity The Sutton Trust Advancing Ambitions I’ve found that good career advice at school can help young people to improve their grades and stay engaged with education. But we argue that a set of recent policy decisions have resulted in a decline in the quality and quantity of the career support available to young people.

Postcode lottery

We’ve seen an imperfect, but functioning, system of career support eroded by a series of cuts and changes in regulation. Previous research has shown that between 2009-10 and 2012-13, council spending on careers has fallen by £228m, with many Connexions services that used to be run by councils now closed. Alongside this the government has also removed the statutory duty on schools to deliver career education and work-related learning. Ultimately we’ve ended up with a very messy picture – which I’ve likened to a “postcode lottery” – where some young people can access good career support and others can’t.

It is in everyone’s interests that young people make decisions to go into courses and jobs that make good use of their talents, in which they will be able to succeed and which relate in some way to what the economy needs.

But career support is particularly important for those young people who come from families where adults are in low-skill, low-pay employment and whose families don’t have a tradition of going to university. Career guidance contributes to social mobility by providing access to information, experiences and networks that can support young people to consider taking paths that no one from their family has ever trodden.

Boost to exam grades

Our research looked at what quality career guidance looks like and what impacts we might expect to see when it is done well. One of our main criticisms of recent government policy is that they have made some radical cuts, but haven’t monitored the impacts of this.

We looked at 820 schools which have received a formal quality award for their careers provision. These schools have been inspected and endorsed by an outside agency. We then looked at how these schools were different from schools which do not hold these awards, comparing data held by the Department for Education about attainment, attendance and progression.

We found that controlling for other factors, schools which held the awards had a 2% advantage advantage in the proportion of pupils with five good GCSEs, including English and Maths. We also found a small, but significant, reduction in persistent absences (of 0.5%). In the sixth form we found that the proportion of students gaining three A levels was 1.5% higher in schools and sixth form colleges with the quality awards than other schools.

Students also had higher UCAS scores, though the gains were not repeated in general further education colleges. Sixth form colleges with accredited career guidance showed a significant increase in the number of students going to leading universities.

These findings suggest that there are benefits to having a good careers programme. As well as supporting young people to make good choices and to progress to post-school destinations, they also engage young people, making it less likely that they will be absent and more likely that they will attain good results. If you know where you want to go, you are more likely to work hard to get there.

What good career guidance looks like

The research found that schools which have quality career support share a number of features. All had senior leaders who cared about careers and were able to connect careers to the schools ethos. All had built an infrastructure of staff and resources to deliver career education and guidance. All started these programmes at the age of 11 or 12 and involved employers and post-secondary learning providers who came in to talk to the children. They also all provided individual support such as one-to-one career guidance. These findings echo many of the findings in The Gatsby Foundation’s 2013 Good Career Guidance report.

Career guidance has had a chequered history in English schools and the Coalition’s policies have been a particular low point. But there is strong agreement among employers, schools and researchers that career education and guidance is important and can bring a number of benefits to schools, young people and the wider economy.

We can only hope that the new secretary of state for education, Nicky Morgan, and her successors in the new parliament next year will learn from the mistakes of their predecessors. They should focus on putting in place a system of career support which will help all young people to navigate the education and employment system and achieve their potential.