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How might the self-serving reminiscences of celebrities have helped kill an important public service for young people?

Last week I attended a dinner and discussion on the future of the careers service hosted by the Comino Foundation. To which the obvious question is ‘what future’? The service was already weakened when the Coalition came to office. By focussing the lion’s share of resources on disadvantaged young people, Labour’s Connexions service downgraded the idea of a universal careers provision. The Coalition government started out sounding positive about a lifetime careers service but, while the adult provision was to some extent enhanced, Michael Gove – who must have been fully aware of the likely consequences – made the decision to devolve careers advice to schools. This was a bad idea for two reasons. Most schools, obsessed as they are with exam results and OFSTED inspections, were bound to see careers as a low priority. Also schools can’t be expected to give objective advice when they have strong incentives to keep pupils on in their own sixth form.

So absolutely no one was surprised when last year’s OFSTED report on careers advice found that only one in four schools were fulfilling their duty to provide impartial, high quality careers advice. OFSTED is beefing up the inspection of careers and the greater use of pupil destination data may concentrate minds, but it is clear from the dismissive comments made recently by Michael Gove to the Education Select Committee, that the virtual demise of an independent professional careers service for young people is not leading to any shedding of tears at the DfE.

In essence the Secretary of State’s response to the Committee’s concerns was that, as the careers service had been rubbish before, it doesn’t really matter if it is abolished now. Apart from being a non-sequitur, the problem with this view is that the most authoritative analyses of the old council-funded careers service suggested it was a pretty good model.

How is it – apart from a series of unfortunate events – that a significant public service which seems broadly functional, and is surely even more important in a world of high youth unemployment and fast changing labour markets, simply disappears under the waves of political ignorance and indifference?

One reason lies in the difficulty of proving that careers advice works. You can of course measure pupil satisfaction but what policy makers really care about is whether careers advice leads to better decisions. But this is almost impossible to disentangle from the many other influences on young people’s decisions, not to mention wider changes in the economy and labour market. Also the impact of good careers advice may often be long term; youngsters may not follow the advice immediately but it could be important to subsequent choices.

But a less obvious reason lies in the musings of the famous. According to the Times diary last week Lynn Barber amused the audience at the Bloomsbury Institute by telling them that had she followed her careers advice she would have ended up a prison warden. I’m a huge fan of the writer and interviewer and I’m sure she meant no harm by what she said: The problem is the overall impact of throwaway comments such as this.

The people whose opinions are heard most loudly – the famous and powerful – are by definition unusually successful. Whilst good careers advisors would never discourage young people from being ambitious, it is their job to help young people understand the options they face if – as will be the experience of the vast majority – they don’t enjoy exceptional talent or good fortune. Therefore, it will almost always be the case that celebrities will have been given advice which will seem prosaic or ill-judged in view of their subsequent success. The most successful people also love to project a self-serving biography of overcoming adversity and discouragement to prove everyone wrong (how often do the rich and famous tell us they succeeded through a combination of privilege and luck?).

Therefore while we hear very little from the millions of young people who have had good advice which has helped them make wise choices, we are often regaled with the amusing failure of some poorly paid, corduroy jacket wearing, time serving careers advisor to see the obvious brilliance of future celebrity.

Thus – a vital service which might help address huge problems like youth unemployment, young people making poor educational choices and a mismatch between skills and labour market needs – withers away misunderstood and largely friendless.


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