In the middle of my Year 13 tutor group's UCAS application season, I am reminded of the abject misery of the university application process. The tiresome slog of a personal statement that some say is not worth the paper it is written on, the endless sessions on mock interviews, the reminders that missed homework or lateness to lessons may result in a failure to achieve a university place (as if admissions tutors are strategically positioned at the gates of each Sixth Form, marking down the minutes) - all of these things remind me that I'm glad I'm not 17 and applying for university again.
It's not the paper work that is the problem. The biggest issue that my students have faced is a total lack of awareness of the range of courses and careers that are available to them should they wish to apply to university and I do not blame the students at all; I was exactly the same.
At the point when I had to make my choices, I wanted to study English Literature at university but that was as far as it went. I may have uttered the word 'journalism' in a panic to a tutor once, or perhaps to my mother, who was more than a little frustrated at my lack of desire to make a lot of money doing something scientific. "All your friends are going to be pharmacists, or optometrists," she would remind me, as if I hadn't noticed that my A-Level choices of English Literature, French and History would not be the perfect stepping stone to a white lab coat.
As usual, I see a metaphor in all of this. My students are able to tell me that they want to be a doctor, or a lawyer (when they're not saying 'footballer' or 'singer'). They see an entire field of study as their final destination - they see the tree. But they have a limited understanding of the 'branches'. Have I ever taken the time to sketch out those branches for them? My students know there are careers, but not about the careers within careers. And to be honest, they are sitting at the bottom of those trees, looking up in confusion.
What experiences do students have of specific and personalised careers advice? An article in The Telegraph this afternoon serves as a depressing reminder of the gulf between careers advice in the state sector and careers advice in private schools. That gap is even more stark between schools with high proportions of students from low socio-economic backgrounds and private schools, where the connections of a wealthy parent or two makes work experience in year 10 a stratospherically different learning curve for the differing sets of students.
Personalise the Programmes
To close this gap, work in state schools needs to start early - and the key term for our students is personalisation. Our students have aspirations, but lack the connections and confidence to be able to seek out the branches of the careers they may be interested in. When a child arrives in secondary school, they need to sketch out the branches of those trees for themselves, to learn the range of jobs they could aspire to. This cannot be done in a twenty minute session with a careers adviser they will never meet again. Pastoral teams have to make time for this in tutor time, in assembly and in those one-to-one conversations with their tutees. Using technology as a tool to unlock the world of work is a starting point; one organisation, BigAmbition, specialising in digital careers has proactively sought to work with students to develop a quiz that asks questions about personal working preferences and personality - the Dream Job game is a way to start thinking about the branches of the tree that is ICT.
Think beyond university
Considering the cost of a university education, the figures on drop-out rates in tertiary education in the UK makes for sobering reading, particularly when you examine where the majority of students are dropping out of their degrees. Students at lower-ranking universities are more likely to drop out than at Oxford or Cambridge. One only needs to extrapolate a little to know that some students are being given advice that leads them to the right degree choice and others are not given enough advice that enables them to make education choices that are sensible and sustainable.
The sad implication is that it is unlikely that it is privately-educated students who are either attending the lowest-ranked universities or dropping out of them. So, choices become important - and those choice start with GCSE options in Yyear nine. I have seen schools hand students a piece of paper with a coloured blocking diagram and tell them to hand the slip back with a parental signature. Who do our students talk to, if their parents aren't aware of the implications of GCSE choices at 14? Starting on an inappropriate pathway potentially leads to failure - and that failure has financial implications at the age of 18 or 19. There is no point in saying: "all of our students will go on to university" like that is the be-all and end-all of education. It is our responsibility to ensure that if they choose to go, they are going to the right place and studying the right course.
Get work experience right
For some students, year 10 work experience is two weeks off school, sweeping floors in a supermarket. While learning the value of all fields of work is important, quite often, student feedback shows that students are frustrated by their work experience. It's not an insight into the field they are interested in - and this is partly because the responsibility for administration and sourcing of placements is handed to external organisations. The work experience placements my students benefit from the most are those they've found themselves or those that have been recommended by their tutors. It is clear that state schools need to bring work experience back into the hands of the people who know the students best - their teachers. If that means hiring a full time member of staff to co-ordinate work experience and to source appropriate placements, that is what needs to be done.
It is not difficult to see that the fundamental difference between state and private education is the level of personalised careers advice that students are given. I know the statistics on the effect of parental income and education background on the trajectory of their child, but I cannot help but think that we are able to redress the balance between socio-economic groups if we attempt to see our students as individuals who need guidance earlier on, and in more detail. How hard can that be?