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The best way to ensure that wider options for pupils' futures are considered is to improve the quality of careers provision

Posted on: 04 May 2017

Richard Petty, Head of Berkhamsted Sixth and Sarah Charman, Head of Careers, respond to advice from the outgoing UCAS chief that students should not have to worry about graduate employment while at university.

Colleagues across the profession are sure to miss Mary Curnock-Cook's direct and thought-provoking contributions to educational debate. When she moves on next month, she leaves an organisation which has grown in prominence, responsibility and complexity during her tenure.


Curnock-Cook is surely right to challenge some of the orthodoxies in Higher Education, as in her Daily Telegraph interview of 24 April.


The decision to go to university is, and always has been, taken unthinkingly by some who apply. However, it is an excellent time to be applying, both from a demographic point of view and because of the ample supply of places at very good institutions. Her intervention comes at a time when the transition would otherwise be growing more inevitable still.


The interview considered whether students are being too utilitarian, and focused on employment, in their initial choices. But this is the world of the Teaching Excellence Framework, of cut-throat competition in the admissions market, and yes, the $64,000 question (or more) of debt.


At a parent talk last night, the parents of Year 13 pupils at Berkhamsted discussed their expectations, hopes and fears for their sons and daughters making the transition to university, some 2016 leavers cheerfully and eloquently recounted the pressures they encounter. Already as first-year undergraduates, they are all too conscious of workload, employability and finance.


Workload and finance are clearly consequential to those vital choices made of degree course, all the more so given retention rates at a wide range of institutions, and the pressure on undergraduates, implied by data on the high usage of university mental health services. How refreshing that the call to encourage students and parents to look at a wider range of prospective degrees, and to look far beyond employment prospects at the end of them, comes from within UCAS.


However, the idea that students might be willing and able to take some time out after university, perhaps returning home to mum and dad, makes assumptions that won’t hold up. They may miss the long-standing calendar and cycle of some graduate opportunities. If their working lives are longer, then that surely intensifies, rather than reduces, the need to think critically about careers at school. Mum and Dad may also hold different ideas, both on desired careers or on the attractions of having their offspring return to the fold.


If there are common threads to the ‘middle class psyche’ evoked by Curnock-Cook, such as a preference for university to the exclusion of very exciting direct entry routes, then the changing world of apprenticeships available will impact on that worldview. Options will open up. Jaguar-Land Rover, the BBC, Rolls Royce, PwC - all leading providers of high-quality direct entry routes into employment at 18 - are names which sit very comfortably with any such outlook.


And - beyond middle-class students, some of whom may be able to rely on a period back home after university - the best way of ensuring wider options are considered by all is to improve the quality of careers provision in schools across the country. No education can aim to prescribe a list of answers; rather, it is about nudging the student towards a more questioning path in which she feels that she is increasingly empowered to find her own answers. It should start early; it should be fun and it should be responsive to individuals. The 2016 National Graduate Careers Survey identifies a strong correlation between a student’s confidence in her future and an early start in researching Careers.


The careers education question has been fudged for some time now. It is time for governments and prospective governments to think harder, and to commit more resources to, a shortfall that will not go away. If only more policymakers could read and act on the 2014 Report by the Gatsby Foundation, students across the UK may finally gain the careers education they deserve, and their futures demand – at the right time.

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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.