Careers Education for Students - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:53 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Morris of Yardley Baroness Morris of Yardley Labour 3:53 pm, 6th September 2018

My Lords, I am pleased to take part in this debate and I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Aberdare, on securing it and on the way that he introduced it. His commitment to this area has served us well in previous debates. I am delighted that there is somebody who constantly puts this item on our agenda, and I thank him for that. I very much look forward to the speech from the noble Baroness, Lady Bull. The fact that everyone will say how much they are looking forward to hearing it will make her very nervous, but we know of her background and what she brings to this House, and I genuinely look forward to her comments.

I had made myself a note to say at the start of my speech that I suspected that no one would say that careers education had ever been as good as it should be or that it is as good as it should be now, but I have just been proved wrong by the previous speaker. I will not be as glowing as the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, about the state of careers education but I will try to share some of the optimism, because I think that work has been done over the last three to four years. I want to recognise that but I also want to raise some questions about where we are going and what the evidence is for that.

We have never got careers education right because we have never had the sort of society that indicates that we are getting it right. The fact that social class mobility is slower in our society than in our competitor nations shows that we are not giving opportunities to young people from all backgrounds. That there is such a big mismatch between the skills that a modern economy needs and the skills of our workforce shows that we are not getting something right. Whatever good has happened in the past, the evidence is that it has not been good enough to get this country and its people to where we want to be. However, I want to recognise some progress. We batter ourselves over the head and take away our energy and our ability to improve.

I want to make three points. First, we should look at the way that women—not all but many women—have more opportunities, do better in schools and aspire to jobs where, when I started teaching in the 1970s, the door would have been closed to them. That is an achievement. Secondly, we should look at the number of children and young people now taking maths and science A-levels in order to go into maths and science jobs. That is an achievement. Thirdly, I get cross when people moan about the increase in the number of people going to university, because they are from backgrounds where young people would not have gone to university in previous generations. That too is an achievement. Therefore, we can do these things but we have not done them as much as we should have done.

It is very difficult to deliver on those things. The north-east is what the Careers & Enterprise Company calls a cold spot. There is a figure showing that fewer children there go on work experience placements than children from other areas. Who is surprised that on Wearside and Tyneside and in areas further south, such as Hull, fewer children have work experience placements and meaningful encounters with employers? Therefore, it is not just about careers education; it is about the sort of society that we are. It is about how many mums and dads have the confidence to aspire for their children; it is about how much social capital we put into our communities; and it is about how many youth organisations there are, and so on. We should not just batter schools and careers education but ask deep questions about the sort of society that we are and that we need to be.

I think that there has been a problem in careers education and I take as much blame from my time as a Minister as anyone else. We dithered between a centralised and a devolved service. When I was a young teacher, I was also a careers teacher—it was one of the things that I did. In truth, it has never been high enough on anyone’s agenda. This debate has made me think back to my days as a careers teacher. I am not saying that it was brilliant then, because it was not, but I taught in a school in a local authority in Coventry that had a particularly strong careers service.

When I taught careers, we had something called a business-education partnership which co-ordinated the activity between schools and employers. Every one of my year 10 students went on work experience for two weeks. I did not have to organise that; it was organised by somebody working for the careers service. We had one and a half careers officers and one employment officer permanently based in our inner-city secondary school. If you said to the Careers & Enterprise Company, “Go and deliver that in every school next year”, it would say, “Come on, you’re joking”. Why did that service disappear? It was not because it was a failure or was not needed; it went because, when the cuts came, it was not thought to be important enough. If it is really important, you protect it when times are bad. In truth, we have not protected careers education.

However, we are where we are and I think that this bit of the revolution started in 2012. Increasingly I think that the Education Act 2011 was the most damaging Act for our education service for many a long decade. One thing that it did was to devolve careers education to individual schools. It broke down their partnerships and their relations—the bits that helped schools to deliver careers education. It required schools to secure access to independent and impartial careers guidance. Just as the noble Lord, Lord Nash, in his time in the Department for Education, had to rebuild a fragmented schools system through multi-academy trusts and chains because devolution to individual schools did not work, so the noble Viscount who is now in charge of careers is having to rebuild that partnership. Leaving schools to do it by themselves does not work. That is the journey that we are on. We tried to mend the terrible damage done by the 2011 Act, so we started again rather than building on the sorts of experiences that were around when I was a young teacher in inner-city Coventry.

I have not changed my mind about this. You have to do three things. You have to give the kids knowledge about the opportunities. You have to give them the skills to understand and analyse themselves so that they know their strengths and weaknesses. Then you have to give them the ability to make effective decisions. You have to do all three things and, if you do, you get it right.

I suppose the Government will now say that the Careers & Enterprise Company and the requirement for schools to develop and publish a careers programme are the means to get that right. I congratulate the Government on bringing that forward. Given the damage of 2012 and the financial climate, it has not been easy, but we have to be tough on this because we cannot get it wrong again. However, I acknowledge that it is a good effort—people are trying and I think it is a government priority.

I want to say what I think is good. A positive thing that I absolutely applaud is the Gatsby benchmarks; I think they are great. I do not want to sound as if I am claiming credit, but they certainly cover the three areas that I have always thought were important. However, I challenge the Government’s and the careers companies’ approach. The eight benchmarks are a whole: you cannot deliver two and think you are improving. It is like teaching maths and saying, “We will teach you to add and subtract, but we will skip multiplication and division, and then say we’ve taught you arithmetic”. You cannot have one without eight, or two without six. I am worried that success is considered to be delivering two of the Gatsby benchmarks—9% using the Careers & Enterprise Company. That is not going to work. If delivering five or six Gatsby benchmarks is thought to be success, it is not going to work.

I turn to the Careers & Enterprise Company. I wish it well, but I worry about what it is doing. Having said that, I want to acknowledge that it delivers a very good programme in Birmingham, where I do some work. The company has set up the National Careers Service, enterprise co-ordinators, careers hubs, careers leaders, enterprise advisers and links with higher education—all at a time when we are redefining apprenticeships and introducing T-levels. That is all right if you are sat in a quango in London, but if you are a busy teacher at a school in Hull or the north-east or anywhere else, it is a minefield to understand. I worry that the Careers & Enterprise Company has spent too much time, money and effort on constructing a structure and not on delivering it. I will be honest: we can talk about its little projects, but I suspect that the projects named by the noble Baroness, Lady Bottomley, were existing charitable organisations that are now being funded by the CEC. They are not things that the CEC has made up and brought to the table—that is not what it does.

I finish with a list of questions for the Minister about the CEC. Is it driven nationally or locally? It sets up local structures, but I do not know whether it is a nationally or locally driven organisation. Is it a grant giver—it does give grants—or is it meant to be developing a strategic plan for the whole nation? Is it universal or is it targeted? Is it required to reach every child and young person, or will we settle for just a touch in the cold spots? Is it meant to be leading the development of careers teachers and leaders? I do not know about that or about defining success.

Finally, if we think about ourselves, what helped us was a decent, broad and balanced education. If I think about how I got my ambition to go into politics, what I loved most at school—I did awful at school—was not the lessons but the debating society. That is what inspired me. I was also encouraged by the teacher who had the time in the school week to talk to me and tell me I could make it, not in the careers lesson but just in the time that seemed to be available in those days. Are we absolutely sure that we are providing schools with the time they need to do things beyond their statutory careers education?