Paul Grainger outlines strategies for high-quality careers provision

Not all college managers are convinced of the value of careers education. The free market environment which still pervades FE causes a pressure on time and resources which often minimises the opportunities for effective careers advice and guidance.

This article looks at the status and role of careers education in FE colleges and suggests strategies to improve and extend the reach of provision.

Too little, too late
The view of many managers is that by the time a young adult arrives at college at the age of 16, advice is superfluous. Students decide to go to college for very specific reasons. Recent research at St Helens College, Merseyside, reports the principal Pat Bacon, indicates that students enrol, not for a qualification, but for a career. Their mind is made up. By then they are committed to a pathway which will unfold without much intervention. Resources, it could be argued, should go into Year 6 – what does the next key stage hold, and what are the institutional choices open to me? – and into the rather dismal Year 9 which is lacking in clear goals and proper advice on the implications of options, vocational alternatives, and college links. By the age of 12 most children have an understanding of whether or not they intend to go to university.

At 16 it is possible to discern two populations in colleges: those who have determined on a lifestyle choice, as in the St Helens research; and those for whom career choice is deliberately deferred. The former tend to enrol on vocational options. They are already beginning to observe the appearance codes – pony tails for young men on IT courses, sharper suits in business, tracksuits in PE, and flamboyance in performing arts. The career pathway has been selected, and qualifications are being taken to determine the point of entry.

On the other hand those taking A-levels, who have chosen to go on to university, do not look beyond that except in the most general of terms. The decision to read history does not indicate a career ambition. That choice is often left until the year of graduation or shortly afterwards. The post-university gap year is not unusual.

It is not for the college to intervene in this. Colleges are in competition. Managers dislike career services that frequently advise young people to look elsewhere, when it is patently obvious to them that their college has the best provision in the universe. Colleges are funded for provision not progression. The curriculum is crowded. Most young people are already employed: a common reason cited for poor retention is lack of time, over work and, particularly, repetitive work, or work which is seen as going nowhere. This lies behind their intense dislike of key skills. College management teams focus on curriculum delivery, ratcheting up standards and grades, retaining students, and keeping Ofsted off their backs. They work to avoid contestability whereby the Learning and Skills Council removes provision from a college perceived to be lacking in course quality, and redirects it elsewhere.

Yet it is obvious that both attention and achievement are affected by motivation and motivation by ambition. Those who become doubtful of their future are less likely to succeed. Premature vocational specialisation often relies on gender, class or ethnic stereotyping. Girls into care, boys into engineering. The choice is often based on seriously flawed assumptions: there is little glamour in hairdressing; there are few doe-eyed children in care; and there is insufficient room for many Posh Spices in Putney.

Dilatory neglect can also be dangerous, though it must be said that more variety of choice and lateral opportunities become available as the student gets older. A-levels are poor preparations for employment and have little value on the high street. Psychology may be a wonderfully interesting academic discipline: but then what?

Nine ways forward
Somehow quality careers education has to be introduced, without adding to the burden on time.

  • Assessment. Provide exercises which contribute to initial assessment. Colleges test entrants for a range of skills – numeracy, communication, learning style etc. Career planning can be assessed at this stage with no extra textural demand, and then tracked through.
  • Induction. For most colleges this is now much larger than ‘these are the loos’ and runs for three or four weeks alongside the curriculum: ‘these are our expectations of you as a student’ and ‘we can help you learn how to learn’.  Exercises can easily be provided for the latter and monitored.
  • Tutorials. Colleges used to be funded specifically for tutorial programmes, but now they are more weakly authenticated by self-reporting and inspection. Sadly, they are often devoid of content until UCAS comes around, and are unfocused. Offer some focus.
  • Students’ Union. In colleges, where students rarely stay more than two years, there is volatility of personnel and activity. Well-meaning, most FE students’ unions would welcome advice on the purpose and direction of their activity.
  • Feedback. Careers advice and guidance are needed on results feedback days. This is, of course, resources intensive: hundreds of students will need advice. But it is crucial as these are moments when career decisions are made.
  • Intranet. Open a dialogue and advice site within the college intranet. Make it interactive. Integrate this with student induction. Learning how to use, and enjoy, your interactive site will help a student in learning how to learn.
  • Helpdesk. Have a regular helpdesk inside the canteen. For many students it is socially necessary to be in the canteen for long periods of time. Often they are the ones most in need of advice.
  • Breakfast clubs. These clubs are of benefit to many students and guidance can be offered here. Colleges will appreciate help with staffing.
  • Key skills. Offer key skill assignments. Something career related, but assessing skills in numeracy, communication, or IT.  The curriculum staff will love you.

Paul Grainger is developing a Post-14 Centre for Innovation and Reform at the Institute of Education, University of London.

First published in Learning for Life, December 2006