Why careers guidance is more important than ever

By Sir John Holman on

As colleges wind down teaching for the summer, and say goodbye to what has been an extraordinary year, all thoughts will be turning to September. With the jobs market ravaged and the future for employment uncertain, young people more than ever need help with making the right career decisions.


Leaders and staff will be under pressure to deliver courses in a way that is COVID-19 safe, as well as supporting their local community and Year 11s who are at risk of becoming NEET. Tough decisions will have to be made across the board as to what elements of college life should be a priority next year and where investment should be directed. College leaders know they have to prioritise making up lost ground, but I want to take this chance to urge all leaders to make Careers a key part of your planning.


I created the Gatsby Benchmarks for good career guidance in 2014 because I saw that in some schools and colleges, Careers wasn’t providing young people with the opportunities they needed. Since the launch of the government’s Careers Strategy for England in 2017 I’ve watched as colleges have taken on the challenge and made great progress towards the Benchmarks. Just before lockdown was announced, the AoC conducted a survey about Careers in colleges that showed how far the sector had come - colleges are very positive about Careers, they have Careers Leads, careers is being embedded across the curriculum and is also a regular topic on the agenda for senior leaders’ meetings. 
Colleges are critical for protecting those vulnerable students in their community who have most to lose as the jobs market goes through turbulent change. As job opportunities disappear, new ones will appear, and good career guidance can steer students towards them.


I’m not surprised that colleges understand how important learning about careers is to students. Every day lecturers in colleges use careers to contextualise the work students do, increasing their motivation. But what the Gatsby Benchmarks have helped colleges to do is to bring that disparate, everyday activity within a system that works across the whole institution.


Last week I was struck by the words of Lisa O'Loughlin, principal of the Manchester College (TMC) who have just won an AoC Beacon Award for excellence in careers. On a webinar explaining their approach, Lisa spoke about how Careers was key to raising aspirations across the college, both of students and of staff, and that to embed Careers across the whole college they needed a cultural shift, summed up by their strategy ‘Careers not courses’. The senior team led from the top, including Careers in all meetings and conversations with staff. Over a few years, this approach has led TMC to meet not only their Careers objectives but also more of their overall strategic objectives. They are now in the top 10% of colleges in the country. 


What Lisa and TMC recognised is that Careers does not work as an isolated, ad hoc activity: it needs a senior leadership team that fully backs the programme. That was true before the pandemic, and is especially true now.  There are many strategic decisions that need to be taken about next year, about blended learning and digital infrastructure, for example. If colleges think about how Careers will be integrated into these decisions, we can build on the great progress that has been made over the last four years.


At the Gatsby Foundation we are aware of how important the next year will be, and we are  keen to support college leaders to embed careers across the institution. Over the next few months we will be working with the AoC and others to gather intelligence and ideas from the community, to inform our work in this area. If you have any thoughts you would like to share with us then you can email careerguidance@gatsby.org.uk to be involved. We are also working closely with The Careers & Enterprise Company to provide updated, practical guidance to Careers Leaders on delivering the Benchmarks in this new climate.


For now, though, I would like to leave you with a final thought on careers. As we enter the economic recession, students leaving college will need to be able to look critically at the job market, assess opportunities and make well-informed choices. Careers is the part of education that gives students these skills, arming them with knowledge about work and about future study and training routes. I urge senior leaders to back their Careers team, and continue delivering the Careers programme that your students need now more than ever.

Sir John Holman is the author of The Good Career Guidance Report