Norfolk warning over careers guidance provision

Youth unemployment and skills shortages will get worse unless the government ensures all young people have access to high-quality careers guidance, the former head of the service in Norfolk has warned.

The government is in the process of fine-tuning its Education Bill which includes transferring responsibility for providing impartial and independent careers advice from local authorities to individual schools.

But fears have been raised that it could lead to a fragmentation of the service with the quality of advice varying from school to school and many young people missing out on vital support – and ministers are being pressed to ensure that does not happen.

At a time when students are facing major challenges including escalating university fees and an increasingly-difficult jobs market, former careers service head Paul Morse and Norfolk headteachers believe the provision of high quality careers guidance is more important than ever.

Liberal Democrat county councillor Mr Morse, who for 14 years ran the careers service in Norfolk, first as a local authority-run service and later as a private provider, said: 'I can see far too many young people leaving education not having a clear idea about what they are going to do. That then leads to people drifting without realising what's available and what they can achieve.'

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Mr Morse has been briefing Lib Dems coalition ministers about the kind of last-minute changes they should be pushing for with regards to the careers guidance provision in the Bill and has written to education secretary Michael Gove to raise concerns.

While welcoming the government's efforts to improve the service, he wants ministers to use the Bill – which is currently at the report stage in the House of Lords – to ensure every young person has access to the support and advice they need about future training and employment.

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According to the Department for Education, the changes will mean schools have 'greater freedom and flexibility to exercise their professional judgement in determining the most appropriate careers guidance for their pupils'.

But Mr Morse fears plans to give schools responsibility for the provision of independent advice could lead to a fragmented service where headteachers commission the service from a number of different companies – making it difficult for businesses to engage with them – and quality varies widely. He said: 'Local schools are being required to commission careers guidance from some time next year but are being given no money to do it. What you are going to get is some schools doing next to nothing and a handful doing it very well. It's going to be patchy.'

Those fears are shared by Rob Anthony, associate headteacher at the Hewett School in Norwich.

'The big advantage of the Connexions service was that it was a standard service defined across the country,' he said. 'Now you are in a position where schools are responsible for deciding what's necessary and what they can do within the funding. You're going to get different standards across the schools.

'We're going to have to watch very closely and see what happens. I would like to think schools would do the right thing – I know the Hewett School will be doing the right thing – but because it's down to each individual school there's no telling how it's going to work. That's the concern about it.'

The headteacher also questioned whether there were enough companies offering the 'impartial, independent careers advice' required by the government to meet demand.

Currently, careers guidance in Norfolk and across much of the country focuses on young people who are not in employment, education or training – the so-called NEETs – or youngsters at risk of falling into that category.

Under the new bill, local authorities will retain responsibility for that group but Mr Morse wants the new requirements for schools to ensure it is not just pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds or the less academically able who get support.

He said his experience showed the need for careers guidance was not linked to social background or academic ability.

Without an improved careers guidance service, available to all young people, Mr Morse fears the rising number of NEETs in Norfolk will escalate further.

He added: 'The skills shortage will worsen, young people and parents will not be aware of the opportunities out there, young people will not achieve their ambitions, will not be challenged to raise their aspirations, and we will be left with even more NEETs.'

The DfE said the aim of the changes was to ensure the country had 'more young people achieving and progressing to higher levels of education or training, or into employment'.

A spokesman said it would be up to schools – who are best placed to know what their pupils need – to provide the right form of guidance to achieve that.

Last night Nicole McCartney, principal at Ormiston Venture Academy in Gorleston, the former Oriel High School, said she hoped all schools would embrace the opportunity to ensure their students got the careers guidance they needed. She said: 'It is absolutely essential. A student can have 16 GCSEs but if he or she doesn't know how to interview or know how those GCSEs can lead them to the A-levels they need for their chosen path, we haven't done our job.'

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