Schools are supposed to provide independent careers advice by law – but will this be sufficient to stop schools acting in their own interests rather than in their pupils’?

Janet Downs's picture
Schools now have a statutory duty to provide independent careers advice and must “act impartially”. They must recognise when it is the “best interests of some pupils to pursue their education in a further education (FE) college or a university technical college (UTC),” says guidance from the Department for Education (DfE).

But there’s a conflict of interest here. The Commons Education Select Committee heard there was a “tension” between schools wanting “a healthy vibrant sixth form” which contributes to a school’s success and “doing the right thing for the children.” The Committee recognised the need to get “bums on seats” led to a conflict of interest between the school and pupils. 57% of 500 teachers polled felt “obliged” to persuade pupils to enter the school’s own sixth form. 26% blamed “overt pressure from school leavers” for this.

The DfE’s statutory guidance requires schools to offer careers advice to pupils as young as 12-13 so they can make informed choices at age 14. But realistically, how many schools are going to give impartial advice about rival establishments like UTCs that offer education from age 14? Funding follows the pupil so it is unlikely schools will provide such information unless, of course, they see UTCs and Studio Schools as a way of getting rid of difficult pupils.

The Select Committee heard that schools with sixth forms tended to inhibit access to information from rival 16+ establishments. A survey of colleges in March 2012 found that only 18% had “significant access” to pupils in schools and 74% said schools wouldn’t even distribute college prospectuses. The Association of School and College Leaders said “an increasingly competitive environment has increased tensions between institutions.” If this is already happening at 16+ then it is likely to happen at 14+.

At the same time the Government has removed the statutory duty on schools to provide careers education and work-related learning. This decision was much criticised by Select Committee witnesses. The DfE states that “careers guidance can be more effective” if pupils “have access” to a programme of work-related education but does no more than suggest “appropriate activities”.

So, no obligation to provide work-related education and it’s up to schools how best to meet their statutory obligations. Ofsted won’t be making a “clear judgement on careers guidance provision” in the schools it inspects. And the Select Committee concluded the “Ofsted framework is not a credible accountability check on the provision of careers guidance by individual schools.”

And now we have the possibility of schools being judged by the number of pupils they send to Russell Group Universities. This could lead to another conflict of interest – the need for schools to look good in league tables and market themselves to parents versus the responsibility to provide impartial careers advice which enables school leavers to make decisions which are in their best interest.

The best careers education and advice should give pupils the tools they need to make a wise decision about their future lives. This should not be put at risk by schools acting in their own interest.



DfE Statutory Guidance is here.

DfE advice for securing independent careers guidance is here.

The National Careers Service can be accessed here. The Select Committee recommended that its remit be expanded to include “capacity-building” (eg working with schools to design an annual careers plan of provision). Plotr, the Government’s new website for young people is here. But Matthew Hancock MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, made it clear to the Committee that "pointing to a website is not enough". Schools should heed this comment.

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