Careers advice is crucial, but what can schools do?

Blog posts

20 Jun 2016

Rosa MarvellRosa Marvell, Research Fellow

Careers information, advice and guidance can be a powerful tool. High-quality guidance helps young people make effective decisions and can be associated with significant wider benefits. However, concerns about the architecture and delivery of careers guidance have been voiced across the sector. A 2015 survey of employers by the Confederation of British Industry found 77 per cent of respondents felt that careers advice for young people was not good enough. Indeed, the UK Government’s own Statutory Guidance recognised that: ‘Careers guidance in schools has long been criticised as being inadequate and patchy’.

To raise standards and aspirations, several new policies have emerged, with a much stronger emphasis on employer engagement with schools/colleges, and workplace exposure for young people. New IES research about the STEM Ambassadors and STEM Clubs programmes highlights good practice in the sector, particularly around involving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) industry professionals, and offers new insights against which to consider these policies.

Careers advice in context: the UK and England

Provision of Careers Information, Advice and Guidance (CIAG) was moved from Local Education Authorities in 1994, and became more targeted towards disadvantage a few years later. Universal and targeted provision, in the form of Connexions, was launched some years later in 2001. However, over the following years leading up to the global financial crisis, CIAG funding for young people decreased. During the 2010-2015 Coalition Government, the National Careers Service for adults and young people in England was created, whilst schools took over responsibility for face-to-face provision and Ofsted gave CIAG more priority in its inspections.

Two years later, the Careers and Enterprise Company was launched to broker greater employer engagement with schools/colleges, and drive up CIAG quality. Revealed this year, the Jobcentre Plus Support for Schools initiative will run alongside it, providing labour market advice and work experience to 12-18 year olds, particularly those at risk of disadvantage.

Alongside these national policies, schools and colleges must provide both in-house and external CIAG for pupils in years 8 to 13. This must be timely, impartial and include apprenticeships and other vocational training alongside information about work or Further and Higher Education.

But does it work?

Historic evidence shows that good-quality career interventions benefit most groups. Young people with more developed career-planning skills are more confident about post-16 choices and make more successful transitions from secondary schooling. In addition, research has found those who attended more CIAG talks from external professionals between the ages of 14 to 16 were paid more 10 years later than peers who received less guidance.

In other words, extensive, trusted information about the labour market from employers and employees can give a clear economic advantage later in life. Although the evidence is more ambiguous, several studies also link careers advice to better wellbeing. By inspiring individuals to be proactive and believe they have the ability to ‘make things happen’, CIAG can increase agency, self-efficacy and confidence.

Furthermore, the absence of quality CIAG can bring disadvantages. Young people with mismatched or uncertain career aspirations at age 16 have an increased likelihood of becoming NEET, particularly young men from lower socioeconomic groups. Young people in marginalised groups have reported that because they did not know much about their options at the end of Year 11, they were stopped from doing what they wanted to, including engaging in education or training after leaving school.

What can we learn from STEM Clubs and STEM Ambassadors?

The evidence is clear: good CIAG brings benefits to young people; schools and colleges play a crucial role. Our recent research into the STEM Clubs and STEM Ambassadors Programmes adds further insights about good practice, as the study revealed a strong consensus that these programmes improve young peoples’ employability skills.

STEM Ambassadors are individuals who use STEM skills in their work, and volunteer to support the provision of STEM education to young people. STEM Clubs are extra-curricular sessions that allow pupils to explore elements of STEM subjects in alternative formats outside the curriculum.

It became clear through our study that the diversity of the programmes was a real strength. Our research found that one-off, or short-term STEM Ambassador-led activities help to increase pupils’ knowledge and understanding of the world of work. Longer-term, project-based STEM Club activities allowed pupils to work together in different roles, and a range of skills emerged from the activities. Problem solving, teamwork and communication were especially prominent, but pupils also took more responsibility, challenged themselves and developed resilience - valuable preparation for further study and work.

Our findings are reinforced by existing evidence where flexibility and creativity have been cited as drivers of good practice by careers guidance counsellors working with young people. We also found that the ‘hands-on’ nature of many activities was important to build skills. This supports the OECD’s statement that making use of a ‘strong experiential component’ is crucial to quality CIAG.

When it came to finding out about the world of work, it was invaluable for pupils to meet with industry role models. Interactions with STEM Ambassadors – careers fairs, one-off talks, informal chats, workplace visits and more extensive, regular contact – were also crucial vehicles that helped pupils explore new ideas for work and learning. These conversations demystified diverse and lesser-known occupations, workplaces and career trajectories, and helped pupils to discover new options they might not have considered without the experience. For example, STEM Ambassadors often made a point of emphasising technical routes alongside more traditional ones such as Higher Education so pupils could hear about a range of different experiences. Even where students decided they did not want to enter a particular sector or job role, they said the experience was very valuable for discovering where their interests lay.

Having professionals such as STEM Ambassadors in the classroom is a benefit supported by the international research evidence. Our research findings support the OECD recommendations that education-business links are an effective complement to programmes within schools, which ensures that CIAG does not become too homogenous or remote from the real world.

It is important to recall that these activities had a Science, Technology, Engineering or Mathematics focus, and frequently capitalised on pupils’ existing interest in STEM. However, the findings provide convincing evidence: Where CIAG is tailored to students’ interests, is varied, creative and engages employers, young people may be in a better position when they come to make decisions about their future.

Read the summary of the IES research for STEMNETSTEM0616


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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.