One of the biggest difficulties facing school pupils today is knowing what path to take through education and into employment. Although schools now have direct responsibility for providing independent careers advice for pupils, according to a report published last year the majority of schools in England have made cuts to careers guidance, making it harder for young people to gain the knowledge they need to make the right choices for their individual careers.
The problem is a complex one, exacerbated by our education system and social attitudes to education and work. Over the last few decades our economy has changed more rapidly than the qualifications available, resulting in a gap between the abilities of young people entering the jobs market and the skills required of them by employers. Since the 1980s, successive governments have encouraged more and more young people to take the traditional route through education, pushing them through university on the promise of higher paid jobs after graduation.
Unfortunately, that long-held belief of “degree = better job” is no longer valid, and this approach has seen vocational training devalued in the eyes of many who still see university as the best option, regardless of a student’s aptitude, the quality of the specific course or the institution itself. Conversely, it has also demeaned the value of academic learning, with too many universities accused of delivering courses that simply aren’t good enough but which they have felt compelled to offer in order to accommodate all of those students applying to them.
An article in The Telegraph today gives an excellent insight into the experiences of students who have opted for “higher apprenticeships”, combining workplace training with degree-level studies. Particularly interesting is the view of one student who claims that many middle-class parents push their children down the university route because it is the done thing, rather than it being the right thing.
If we want to offer genuine hope to this generation of young people then we need to prepare them much more effectively from before the stage at which they start choosing their GCSE subjects. They need independent advice and information on the structure of the UK economy, the types of jobs that will be available to them and the education options they can choose from to ensure their best chance of finding suitable employment when they start applying for work.
They need to be aware of the reality of today’s economy, so that their career aspirations are founded on something they can actually achieve, rather than just something that sounds appealing to them.
Reforming our qualifications system and trying to change social attitudes to education are massive undertakings that will take considerable time and effort but improving the level of independent career guidance and information that we provide is a more achievable first step.
It would go a long way to enabling young people to make the right choices to navigate their individual paths through education and into employment. And, in these difficult economic times, with high youth unemployment across the globe, being equipped with the right careers knowledge would also offer some hope.