Careering into oblivion

May 28, 2014 by
Filed under: Public policy, Uncategorized 

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.



  • Pingback: Careering into oblivion – Matthew Taylor’s blog | Public Sector Blogs()

  • Ian Duffy

    That’s all true Matthew, but I’d point you to the recent review for Gatsby by John Holman of how schools can provide good careers advice and guidance. This was based on international comparisons and also the English independent school sector. Sensible stuff in my view, and a good practicable report available from

  • Pingback: Careering into oblivion | Matthew Taylor’s blog | The Echo Chamber()

  • Deirdre Hughes

    The National Careers Council report to Government (2013) set out a vision for ‘culture change in careers provision’. The recommendations were accepted by Government and one-year on it’s time to look at progress made.
    NCC working on a ‘Careers Heat Map’ across England to find out what’s happening on a geographical and sector basis. We’ll be hosting an event in September to share findings and key points for Government.

  • Pingback: We’re on the road to nowhere… | In at the deep end.()

  • Kieran Gordon

    While we narrow our policy focus on trying to apply careers strategies to those out of work we risk increasing the numbers that may find themselves there due to the lack of understanding and education about how to plan and manage a career. If we see careers policy as merely plugging skills gaps we lose sight of the fact that most people are hired on qualifications and fired on attitude: according to Forbes research: 46% of new recruits (n2000) had failed within 18 months; 89% due to attitude and 11% due to skills. The problem with trying to measure careers guidance is it is not just about the destination, but about the journey as well; how well this is navigated and managed. It’s about ‘careers’ so surely we need to take a longer term view on what needs to be done.

  • Lybii

    This has probably aldeary been answered, but I\’ll take a shot at it:A college is a stand-alone educational institution that may either offer a whole lot of different courses (for, let\’s say, a liberal arts education or a B.A. in Liberal Arts) or it may specialize in offering a degree in a particular area of study (for, example, there are colleges that specialize in engineering, in veterinary medicine, in design, etc.). When you go (and graduate) from these colleges, your future work associates will look up to you as knowing pretty much all there is to know in your particular profession.A university is a collection (a bunch of) different kinds of colleges mostly standing on the same, super big campus. For example, the University of California will have a school (college) of medicine, a school (college) of law, a school (college) of engineering, and so forth.So, yeah: If somebody is attending the Yale School of Law, they are still attending a law college on the Yale University campus (that\’s a big deal). But if somebody asks, they\’re much more likely to say they\’re attending Yale University (which is a BIG, big deal) and then they\’ll add on the fact that they are specializing in a degree in Law.So: A college is relatively small, a university (because it is made up of several colleges) is usually very large.

  • Claire Nix

    There is a depressing accuracy in Matthew Taylor’s blog and yet it ignores the energy and commitment of the careers sector in the face of self serving arrogance and political neglect. Careers England the trade body continues to grow and has led the Quality in Careers Standard which validates national awards for excellence in careers education and guidance in schools and colleges. The Career Development Institute, now its second year, has a strong and growing membership of individuals, students and affiliate organisations. CDI holds a Register for career development professionals and has established six sponsored UK wide Career Development Awards. Partnership is the name of the game in good careers work, and the Careers Sector Stakeholder Alliance has secured the backing and support of key national bodies and employers in recognising the role of both employers and careers professionals in delivering careers support for young people in schools and colleges. The lack of financial support from government is a disgrace but the sector working in partnership provides some reasons to be cheerful!