Paving the way – a view from the Sutton Trust

Jul 14, 2022

By James Turner, Chief Executive of the Sutton Trust

The case for high quality, independent careers advice is unlikely to get many people excited, but it is hard to think of an issue that is more central to better social mobility prospects. And while the subject might not attract column inches in the media, or mentions in parliament, it has perhaps never been more important to ensure young people can successfully navigate their options in school, college - and into a jobs market that is rapidly changing, with new pathways opening up all the time.

We know that those from better off homes often have support from family and friends who have the confidence, knowledge and networks to help them with successful transitions into further education and work. For poorer young people, who are less likely to have such support, the information, advice and guidance provided by schools, colleges and the wider system is absolutely crucial in ensuring they make the most of their talents and aspirations.

But over the years (the Sutton Trust has been plugging away at these issues for a quarter of a century now) we have often found the careers system to be lacking, with advice poorly timed, partial and low quality, suffering from a lack of funding, focus and expertise. The consequence all too often is that those from low- and moderate- income homes make poor choices about their futures that unnecessarily and prematurely lock them out of certain education and employment routes.  That represents a huge waste of talent.

Our most recent research on this subject, Paving the way, however, found reasons for optimism, especially since we last looked in detail at careers advice in 2014. The hard work of teachers and advisers, and the impact of national initiatives like the introduction of the Gatsby benchmarks and the work of the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC), look to be paying dividends. For example, almost all state schools now have a Careers Leader, the vast majority of senior leaders are aware of the Gatsby Benchmarks and well over 80% of English schools now include sessions with a careers adviser, run careers fairs, and make links to careers within core curriculum lessons.

Patchiness in provision hurts poorer students

But there were inevitably still problems - especially a patchiness in provision which particularly impacts schools serving poorer areas, despite these communities being the ones who stand to benefit most from high quality support. For example, we found state school pupils are substantially more likely than their independent school peers to report not having taken part in any careers-related activities whatsoever – and are less confident in their next steps as a result. And within the state system, schools in more deprived areas were less likely to have access to a specialist careers advisor – roles which can be especially impactful in supporting youngsters to make informed choices.

Our research also found that pupils were hearing very little about apprenticeships compared to traditional university study, which will do little to address the long-standing academic / vocational divide – or to direct more young people to the many benefits that apprenticeships can provide. Teachers also felt that their own training did not prepare them well for delivering careers education, and pointed to a lack of time and resources in schools, as well as a sense that careers advice was not core to their mission.

To remedy some of these shortcomings, the Trust, in consultation with a range of experts, developed a series of policy recommendations for government, for schools and colleges and for agencies like the CEC to adopt. These proposals resonate strongly with the excellent report from EngineeringUK, Securing the future, which had a similar prognosis of the issue and came to similar conclusions on the way forward.

Like EngineeringUK, we believe that improvements must start with a new, joined up national careers strategy, from which everything else flows (the government’s 2017 strategy has now lapsed). This should specify some non-negotiable cornerstones of activity to ensure there is consistency across schools and regions - either through statutory guidance (as advocated by EngineeringUK) or our own proposal for a guaranteed core ‘careers offer’ for every pupil in England.

Common themes to tackle identified by different evidence bases

Making sure careers advice is treated as a key plank of schools’ and colleges’ overall provision was a theme running through both reports - especially in light of the many other pressures on teachers’ time and budgets, exacerbated by the pandemic. Giving specific senior staff a designated responsibility for careers provision (and the time to do the job well) is an important part of the answer - as is investing in the continuing professional development of all teachers so they feel able to support their students and to genuinely embed careers content in their lessons (another key recommendation coming from the research).

Both pieces of research also found a positive impact to being involved in one of the Careers and Enterprise Company’s Careers Hubs. Like EngineeringUK, we would like to see these rapidly expanded to all secondary schools, with the most disadvantaged schools prioritised. This could provide a critical boost to careers provision for those young people who have been historically most under-served – and where the biggest different could be made.

Of course, all this comes with a price tag; quantified by EngineeringUK as an additional £40m a year for careers and education guidance. At a time of rising inflation and a looming recession, every penny counts. But low social mobility also has a cost – not only socially around unfairness and inequality, but also in the hard economic terms of failing to harness the talents of all sections of society. The term ‘social mobility’ is common place now and the rallying cry of ‘levelling up’ is gathering momentum. Dry as it sounds, ensuring all young people can access independent, high quality advice on their next steps has to be the underpinning of any efforts to level up and spread opportunity. Both common sense and the evidence base is clear on that.

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