Careers Education: past and present

Joe Spence (Dulwich College)

JoeSpence roundelI cannot think of an aspect of my role as a Head over the last 14 years on which my view has changed as much as on careers education. There was a time when the role of the Head in this area was simply to ensure that he wrote a good UCAS reference to support a well-honed personal statement. Of late, however, there has been a realisation that this is not enough. University remains the natural staging post on the road to the workplace for the vast majority of independently educated children, but with no guarantee of a job in a safe profession upon graduation, and certainly no assurance of a job for life, it is not the endgame.

Every teacher is a careers adviser now and the best careers advice plays off that fact. Never has it been less useful to think of careers education as discrete. Good careers advice encompasses lessons in financial literacy, the promotion of good mental health, the development of superior organisational skills and a close understanding of one’s academic and personal strengths. In 2016 we are preparing pupils for multiple careers, for careers as likely to be based abroad as in the UK and for jobs that have not yet been conceived. Transferable skills, like tenacity and flexibility, are taught through every aspect of a holistic education, while careers advisers strive to keep up to speed with the changing world of work. It is to the careers database that every pupil, parent and teacher should be able to turn to find contact details for work experience and mentors; for courses, aptitude tests and training opportunities.

Does all this change the character of careers advice? No, it simply empowers us to make it what it should always have been. The role of psychometric testing has never been more important, but it is now understood that it is not a magic wand; it is a useful indicator when used as one of a careers adviser’s portfolio of interventions. The new networking is about what might be called “self-branding”: pupils need to know how to sell themselves to employers whose needs they have worked hard to understand. Networking is less likely to be based around family connections and an old boys’ or girls’ circuit than around bringing employers into schools and teaching pupils how to talk to them about what their companies do and what interests and skills they require of their workforce.

Will the new higher apprenticeships take off? I hope so. Some of the pupils of whom I am proudest are those who could have gone on to good universities but who have chosen to follow their vocational passions. The boy who had a raft of offers from Russell Group universities was right to take up a carpentry course as the best preparation for a career as a stage designer. I took as much pride in his decision as in the 20 conditional offers to Oxford or Cambridge. The pupil who could have been the twenty-first pupil heading for Oxbridge chose instead to apply to read Film at a new university – but then had the guts to withdraw and set up his own film company, realising that nothing in his degree course could teach as much as he could learn from working on film sets and on his own projects.

It is never too early to start talking about careers. Recent research by YoungMinds ( has found that some 11-year-olds are already worrying about whether they will be employable, so there is important work to be undertaken in Years 7 and 8. These are the years in which to introduce pupils to the traditional professions and to the “new jobs on the block.” It’s the time to explain to pupils that for all the concentration on STEM, there is a rear-guard action which is shouting out “STEAM!” The A (for Arts and Humanities) must not be neglected, for it is through these subjects that the soft skills are often best taught, and they will be of value in the burgeoning service industries: in tourism, media and the creative arts, and even in aspects of IT.

If the groundwork is done by Year 8, then pupils will be well set to make sensible subject choices in Year 9 and to engage with some form of psychometric testing in Years 10 or 11. This is the time for a robust debate about subject choices as the preparation for a career pathway, and ideally this will be engaged in by impartial career advisers, personal tutors and parents or guardians together. Many children are ready for work experience by Year 10, but concerns about risk, child protection and employers’ liability tends to mean that it cannot take place until pupils reach the age of 16. What can be established earlier, however, is an understanding of the contemporary workplace as acquired by listening to successful young practitioners. And at the risk of being ageist, I put the emphasis on young practitioners. You can bring a High Court Judge to the school’s Law Society and create a psychological barrier as pupils believe they will never reach such heights. Bring in a twentysomething solicitor embarking on her first job and you create a role model.

In his 2014 report on “Good Career Guidance” for the Gatsby Foundation,* Sir John Holman offered eight benchmarks for careers education. They can be summed up in two sentences which I offer as a modest proposal for all Heads. Our pupils deserve personal and bespoke guidance within a stable careers programme which sits comfortably within the curriculum (rather than being an awkward adjunct to it). They need to be introduced to employers and employees, in their workplaces, and to those who work and study in higher education.


Download PDF - HMC Insight June 2016