Posts Tagged ‘education’

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.

Pressure of University Clearing

As a Careers Adviser in Further Education, I would look forward to Clearing day with a mixture of trepidation and excitment.  It’s one of the busiest days of the FE Careers Adviser’s calendar and a day of high drama: tears, triumphs, hugs and quick decisions to be made.

The day would start with groups of students hanging around, waiting for someone to come to the noticeboard with the list of obscure codes and letters that would prove to be life changing.  As the notice went up, a group of students would cluster around, pushing for a better view.  We would watch from the windows of the advice centre, as students hugged and congratulated each other, phoned parents and celebrated.  And a trickle of disappointed students would appear at the door.  Before long, the trickle would swell, and we would have twenty or thirty students consoling each other in the waiting area.

Our task was quickly assess their situation, and put them to work on the clearing process.  If they had only just missed their place by one grade, the first task was to ring the university they had applied to.  Many of them would still secure a place with this one phonecall, and could quickly be despatched with a smile on their face.

The rest were put to work, hunting through the newspapers and the UCAS website for courses that they were interested in.  We sat by the students as they checked prospectuses, phoned universities and put their case to admissions tutors.  As each one found a place, the rest would hug and cheer them.  By the end of the day, most had secured some tentative offers, and were reassured that they would still be going to university.  There would be a few who were considering the alternatives.  Job well done, we thought.

Later, I worked as a University Careers Adviser and saw for myself the results of these hasty decisions.  It was all too common for students to feel that they were on the wrong course.  It was only now that they were realising how much Maths was involved in that Business Studies course.  Or how their Psychology course wasn’t recognised by the appropriate professional body.  Or that there wasn’t any practical work in their Media course.  All things they could have found out before they accepted their university place, but didn’t.

Many (but by no means all) of these decisions were made in the rush of the clearing process.  The pressure to just “get a place” makes it hard for students to coolly assess the offer, check the course content and visit the university to see for themselves.  They may not think to ask about drop-out rates, career destinations or student satisfaction ratings.

This week, thousands of students will go through a very similar process in clearing.  The process hasn’t changed all that much.  The most radical difference is that now, students can receive all this information online.  The noticeboard is obsolete.  Many students will receive the news of whether thay have a place at university in the privacy of their bedrooms.  It does give them the chance to absorb the shock of not getting a place before they face the world.  It saves that awkward moment between friends, where one recieves three grade As, and the other receives 3 grade Es and they don’t know what to say to each other.

But with this privacy comes isolation. There are no friends on hand to give a hug and console.  There is no group of disappointed students, in it together, and giving mutual support.  Teachers and Careers Advisers are not on hand to calmly guide the student.  Parents may be as disappointed and confused as the student themselves.

The pressure has only increased to secure a university place, as many school and college leavers fear there will be no jobs for them to go to.  The pressure to get a university place sorted before facing the world will lead to many students accepting places on Any Old Studies at University of the Back Of Beyond, just so they can say they have it sorted when they finally see their friends.  And yet it will be harder than ever to do this, as the number of university applicants has increased and funding for additional university places has been cut.

It’s a brave decision to step out of the clearing process, and make the decision to have some time out and re-apply.  No-one wants to be left behind as friends go off to university.  No-one wants to have to tell the world that they failed to get a university place.  But maybe this is better (and braver) than spending three years (and a lot of money) on the wrong course.

There are lots of things that can be done with this time out:

  • Getting relevant work expereince, whether in a paid job, an internship or just a few days of unpaid work shadowing, can give  something to talk about and write about in applications.  It’s essential for many careers – Media and Law, for example – and can give a UCAS application the edge.
  • Voluntary work, either at home or abroad, is looked upon very positively by universities, and can give the chance to develop new skills, confidence in dealing with people, going to new places and operating in a different culture.  Helping others with their problems and issues is a really effective way to take your attention away from your own problems.
  • There may be apprenticeships available in your area that would provide an alternative route into the career you are interested in, as well as additional qualifications
  • To some extend, any work is useful, even if it just convinces you to work hard at university because you never want to work in a chicken factory again.
  • Some people will choose to re-sit A-Levels, and this can open up a wider range of courses.  However, it should be remembered that some of the more competitive univerisities don’t look so positively on re-sits, unless there is a good reason for not doing well the first time.
  • Gaining new skills though practical courses, such as IT, Business, Care, Construction, Art or Mechanics might open up new doors or give new ideas

If you do find yourself (or your children) in Clearing, please don’t sit alone in your bedroom trying to figure it all out!  Go into your school, college, Careers Service or Connexions and get some professional help.  Don’t make your decisions in a rush without thinking it through.