Archive for the ‘public sector’ Category

Can Schools Really Provide Impartial Careers Advice?

I spent in the morning in a rather down-at-heel comprehensive school in a small ex-mining town.  Around the school are preserved relics from the industrial past: a winding wheel, a plough, some ancient trucks, presumably used to transport coal.  It’s always very cold up here, as the wind whips across the top of the valleys, and the view is rather desolate – council estates in one direction and bleak green hills in the other.

I wondered around looking for the school office – they don’t really have a proper reception (obviously don’t get many visitors!) and I was eventually directed down a maze of corridors to the careers office.  The pupils were polite and held the door open for me, and gave me directions with helpful smiles.

As we wait for the first client to arrive, the Careers Adviser tells me that the sixth form is earmarked for closure.  Parents and teachers are up in arms.  The young people will have to travel to nearby towns, using the patchy local bus service, to attend college or the new propsed sixth form centre.  Parents worry about the lack of supervision in college and wonder whether homework and attendance will be optional.  They worry that they won’t be kept informed about problems with attendance and that the teachers “won’t know them well”. Teachers reinforce this by saying that the pupils are not mature enough to cope.

The reality is different – most sixth form college provide very good pastoral care through the tutorial system and usually offer a much wider range of courses, social support and extra-curricular activities.  College can be a great half way house, between school and university.  They give young people the opportunity to mix with a wider range of people, make new friends and gain confidence in travelling outside their immediate local area.

Young people are sometimes nervous about making the break from school, and often want to study with their friends.  The peer group is often the biggest single influence on whether a young person stays in school or goes to college, given the choice.  Choosing the best course is often a lower priority.  School sixth forms recruit well mainly because so many sixteen year olds don’t want to make the break from their friendship group.

And so it’s been in this school.  The Careers Adviser comments that the young people in this school are much less confident than their peers in the other school she works in.  Many rarely travel outside the local area, becuase the transport links are poor.  They have low aspirations, thinking about jobs in retail, childcare, construction or maybe a factory or warehouse.  There are a few high achievers who are interested in the professions, but they are badly informed about the routes in and have few role models.

The school sixth form is struggling, with only 50 pupils in Year 13.  Of these 50, only 8 have applied for Higher Education.  The remaining 42 are unlikely to go university.  Some of them are worried about money.  Most of them will fail to get the grades they need for a good course. They are expecting perhaps a D and an E at best.  The school strongly encourages its pupils to stay on in sixth form, mainly on A-Level courses, even if they only have a few GCSEs at grade C.  It’s not surprising that so many fail to do well.

The Careers Adviser consistently makes Year 11 pupils aware of the alternatives to the sixth form – apprenticeships and college courses – and because of this, some do make the break and choose more appropriate options, but with so much pressure from  teachers and parents to stay in school, many opt for the safety and security of the school sixth form.

As public sector cuts bite in the careers guidance profession, the expectation is that schools will take much more responsibility for career guidance, and there will be a reduction in the number of guidance interviews that take place with Year 11 pupils.  But what school, desperate to keep its sixth form and protect teaching posts, is really going to provide its young people with impartial guidance about all the options?

I won’t be sorry to see more of these small school sixth forms close, as long as there are good sixth form centres or colleges in the area.  Consortiums of schools can work well as an alternative, but only in urban areas where the schools are physically close together and have good transport links.  Sixth form Colleges seem to be a better way foward in more rural areas.

Transport, however,  is a genuine issue, and without free bus passes, travelling to another town just not realistic for some young people.  In the past, 16 and 17 year olds on low incomes have benefitted from Education Maintenance Allowances and Hardship Funds, but this will no longer be the case.  A family on benefits simply cannot put aside £10 or more a week for bus tickets.  If sixth forms are going to close, then free bus passes must be provided to young people from low income families.

Meanwhile the erosion of impartial career guidance in Year 11 is a worry.  Many more young people will be encouraged onto inappropriate academic courses and will emerge at 18 with a couple of poor A-Levels and no vocational skills or work experience.  They will be poorly equipped to compete in jobs market, but, because they are 18, they will have missed out on the guarentee of a training place.  They run the risk of either becoming part of the increasinly large 18-24 unemployed young people or perhaps moving onto a college course or Modern Apprenticehsip that they could have started when they were 16, had they been given better guidance.

Incapacity Benefit Or Fit For Work?

A lot has been made in the news this week of the new medical assessments for Incapacity Benefit (renamed Employment Support Allowance last year) and the number of claims that are being dropped or turned down as a result.

I find this rather alarming, for two reasons:

The Fairness of the Medical Assessments

Firstly, I have seen for myself how totally random these medical assessments are.  Recently I spent a morning with an adviser working with clients on Incapacity Benefit/ESA.  The first client had “passed” a recent medical; he suffered from depression, and as he talked, it was clear that having a supportive job, some voluntary work or a course to attend would have actually been beneficial to his mental health.  He wasn’t incapable of work, but would need support to find work and then to remain in that job.  The second client had recently “failed” a medical.  He had cancer and was regularly attending medical appointments and chemotherapy, and as a result, was constantly suffering pain, fatigue and nausea.  Yet he had been told he was fit for work and could no longer claim.

From talking to the adviser, I learned that these seemingly random decisions are very common.  So what is the explanation?

  • Is it lack of competence on the part of the doctors conducting the medical?  They are after all, not specialists.  But surely even a GP could distinguish which of the above two clients was more capable of being in work?
  • Is it a lack of guidelines?  Perhaps one doctor only passes those too sick to walk out of the office, while another happily passes everyone?  This seems unlikely, given the amount of burocracy in typical public sector organisations.
  • Or is it targets?  Maybe if you get seen at the beginning of the month, the doctor is reasonable, but by the end of the month, he has to make his targets, so fails everyone until the target is met.  Call me a cynic, but my money is on this explanation.

Support To Get Back Into Work

Even if these medical assessments were fair, I would still have concerns.  Some distinction does need to be made between those who are genuinely too unwell to work at all, and those who could work in some form, given the right support.

Many people on IB / ESA suffer from chronic conditions – often mental health problems (maybe depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder) or chronic pain (typically, back problems or arthritis).  Many of these people could work, but need a lot of support to become “job ready” and would then need a lot of support from their employer to stay in work.  Simply, taking away their benefit is not going to get them back into work.

Most clients need a whole package of support,which might include:

  • Confidence building
  • Social skills
  • Emotional Intelligence (e.g. anger management)
  • Support to manage their condition
  • Job search skills
  • Basic skills (literacy, numeracy and IT)
  • Guidance in finding a new career direction compatible with their condition
  • Vocational training
  • Counselling
  • Voluntary work

Even with this package, they will find it hard to compete in the jobs market, where a period of poor health is often viewed with suspicion by employers.

Should they find work, they might also need an employer who is sympathetic to their needs and prepared to make enough adjustments for them in the workplace.  They might need part-time hours or flexi time to fit around flare-ups in their health problem.  It’s not always easy to find this sympathetic employer when you need it.

So I do worry.  I worry that we are just moving people off Incapacity Benefit and the Employment Support Allowance and putting them on Jobseekers Allowance.  And this is important for two reasons. It’s not just because you get less money on JSA.  It’s also because the Labour government initiated programmes like Pathways to Work, to give claiments on Incapacity Benefit some of the support they needed to get back into work, and claimants loose their eligibility for these programmes as soon as they are switched to JSA.

I don’t see this government putting in place any of the support that people with ongoing health conditions need to re-enter the labour market.