The wave of excitement around the new FE white paper has now broken – and we are once more in the process of getting on with our lives.
Yes, there are some useful funding commitments for colleges and a host of smaller initiatives, but the revolution in student funding that is at the heart of the paper may not happen until 2025 (which really means that the government is still deciding whether it will ever happen). So, after all the excitement and despite all the rhetoric, the white paper looks decidedly like business as usual.
Yet, tucked away between pages 44 and 47 there is a section on career development that has attracted little attention in the commentary on the white paper. However, this section is likely to be one of the first to begin to be implemented. I have just published a detailed analysis of the impact of the white paper on career development for the Career Development Institute. In this article I set out some of the key commitments and areas of concern.
A recent history of careers in England
It is possible to date the start of England’s current career guidance system to 2010 when Michael Gove wielded the axe that dismantled much of the pre-existing career guidance infrastructure. But, by 2012 the same government was launching the National Careers Service (to provide career guidance to adults) and then in 2014 The Careers & Enterprise Company (to work with schools and colleges). Meanwhile the focus on employability in higher education has continued to grow and reshape careers services within that sector.
By 2017 there was a need to bring these elements together into a policy framework. The Careers Strategy that emerged was welcomed because, although provision remained siloed on the ground, the new Strategy took a systemic and all-age perspective. There was a hope that it marked a new way of thinking about careers which recognised that as individuals have careers that unfold across their lifetimes, they will also need help and support with managing these careers throughout their lives. Such help and support should be coherent, progressive, and co-ordinated rather than haphazard and fragmented.
By the end of 2020 all the initiatives in the 2017 Strategy had come to an end and there was a need to replace it with something new.
Enter the white paper
The new white paper promises to bring about a lifetime skills guarantee. In essence this is just about giving all citizen’s loans to enable them to access different learning opportunities. Ideally such a guarantee would be accompanied by a lifetime career guidance guarantee that would enable people to access the help and support that they need to make good choices about what course to spend their loan on. In the words of the white paper itself…
Clear and outcomes-focused careers information is fundamental to the success of our reforms. We need impartial, lifelong careers advice and guidance available to people when they need it, regardless of age, circumstance, or background.
The white paper goes on to announce several new initiatives to improve access to career guidance including:
- Requiring schools to provide independent career guidance from year 7.
- Publishing updated statutory guidance for careers.
- Supporting and strengthening the “Baker clause” which requires schools to ensure that their pupils have an opportunity to learn about vocational pathways.
- Continuing the rollout of the Careers Hubs.
- Investing in more training for careers leaders.
- Revamping the National Careers Service website.
It also sets out some longer-term plans for the scrutiny and development of the field. These include asking Ofsted to undertake a thematic review of career guidance; a new review, led by Sir John Holman designed to bring about greater alignment of The Careers & Enterprise Company and the National Careers Service; and increasing the focus on career development in teachers’ training and professional development.
It won’t take a particularly eagle-eyed reader to notice that all of these initiatives are focused on the compulsory education system, that there is no mention of higher education and that despite the rhetoric, none of it is particularly lifelong.
Despite proposing a range of useful and practical initiatives, the white paper falls considerably short of being a lifelong careers strategy. As I’ve already argued the focus on further education limits what is addressed. This means that it does not link with HE widening participation initiatives, offers nothing for higher education students and ignores the career transitions and challenges of graduates. Rather than offering a lifelong vision of careers and career support, the white paper falls back on the idea that all career decisions are made before you leave school.
Secondly, the white paper fails to offer a way forward on personal guidance, both within the education system and beyond it. There is no attention given to where people should get careers advice from nor on who should be giving it. The facts that almost 40 per cent of schools are unable to guarantee access, and that access to personal career guidance is labyrinthine outside of the education system, are largely ignored. The opportunities to set minimum standards for the career guidance that should be available in higher education or to leverage the generally high standard of careers advice available within the HE sector are missed altogether.
Finally, the fact that the approach to career guidance set out in the white paper is largely a continuation of existing policy should set alarm bells ringing. We are now in a crisis that is very different from the situation of 2017. We need new, more radical and better funded solutions rather than more of the same.
Given this, it is hoped that the announcements in the white paper only represent the beginning of a bigger process of reform and investment in England’s career guidance system.