Jayne Dowle: Why we all need to work on better careers advice children a caree

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I WAS having a chat with some friends the other night about school days. The conversation turned to careers advice. One or two of us were old enough to remember being presented with the stark choice: “It’s either the pit or the steelworks for you lad.”

I recall nursing or teaching being as far as we girls were expected to go, and even then there wasn’t much information about how we expected to get there. Someone recounted a toe-curling story of her sports teacher seconded to give unwilling “advice” in his sweaty tracksuit. Another friend recalled actually crying when he realised he had left school with no idea of what to do next.

I’d like to say that the situation has been transformed in the intervening 30 years and that every child in every school in our region can benefit from an array of options presented before them. Sadly, the opposite appears to be the case.

New research from the educational charity, the Sutton Trust, finds that careers advice has become entirely unfit for purpose since the Government made changes to provision two years ago.

The responsibility was placed in the hands of schools and colleges, backed up by a new National Careers Service to offer telephone and website advice. Clearly, this plan has failed. The charity warns of the startling emergence of a “postcode lottery” in which some youngsters have access to better guidance than others.

Even more worrying is that good careers advice affects a school across the board. The researchers found that schools with a “quality award” for careers guidance produce more students with five good GCSEs, including English and maths. And attendance is better. It doesn’t take a genius to deduce that a school which is good all-round will produce students who are good all-round.

However, this careers issue cannot be brushed aside as yet another target to meet. If we want social mobility to accelerate, we have to raise aspirations.

You will notice that I said “we”. That means you. And me. All of us have a duty to give young people a leg up. To be honest, I get sick of employers moaning that youngsters turn up in the workplace without the necessary skills required to get ahead.

I know that many of them have problems with punctuation and grammar and can’t add two numbers up in their head. I’ve got a 12-year-old son. I bang my head on the kitchen table every time we have homework. However, too often young people are demonised before they have even had a chance to prove themselves.

Turn it around for a second. How often do we hear of employers and business owners taking it upon themselves to go into schools and offer to tell pupils what is expected of them in the world of work?

My daughter’s primary school, to its credit, ran a scheme like this a few years ago. For a week, a parade of parents went in to talk about their jobs: nurse, police officer, legal secretary, estate agent, and yes, journalist.

When I did my talk, I was proud to stand there and demystify what I do all day. I’d like to think that even one of the children I spoke to might think about working for a newspaper when they grow up. And even if they don’t, they might have had their eyes opened to what is possible.

I mentioned all this to my son, who is in Year 8. He said that his favourite part of business lessons is when they have guest speakers come in to show them the ropes of a particular industry. It doesn’t happen enough, though.

I’d urge anyone who cares about the life-chances of our children, anyone who is truly committed to improving social mobility in this country, to contact a local school and ask if they can pop by one day. Education, learning and training shouldn’t just be a one-way street. Our schools should not be providing fodder for minimum wage employers. That kind of thinking belongs to the days of Gradgrind. Sadly though, too many employers have not left the 19th century, never mind entered the 21st.

We talk about economic growth and the need for prosperity, yet not enough is done to invest in the next generation coming through. And we simply can’t rely on schools to do it alone. Last year Ofsted found that 80 per cent of schools were not providing effective careers guidance for all their students in Years nine, 10 and 11. That’s almost all of them. If this was the case with maths or English, heads would roll.

In the time she has left to make a difference before the General Election, I beg Education Secretary Nicky Morgan to address this shocking statistic as a matter of urgency. Make it easier for schools to develop links with the local business community. Release funding to support co-ordinated programmes of guest speakers and hands-on workshops where youngsters learn about a trade from experts in the field.

After all, if careers advice doesn’t work, how can we ever expect our children to work?