During a recent speech to manufacturing industry executives, Business Secretary Vince Cable cited teachers' lack of workplace knowledge as the 'underlying problem' in careers advice and guidance. According to Cable, teachers - predominantly graduates themselves - "know about UCAS forms - but... know absolutely nothing about the world of work."
Understandably, teachers have taken exception to Cable's assessment and it does simplify an extremely complicated issue. Cable is right to note, when speaking about careers advice and guidance, that successive governments have "frankly messed this up" in regard to the various schemes and programmes that have been introduced and phased out over the years. With this in mind, laying the bulk of the blame at the feet of our teachers seems rather short sighted.
Not only is it both unfair and unrealistic to expect already overworked teachers to have the breadth of knowledge necessary to deliver careers guidance, but it is also directly at odds with the government's policy devolving responsibility to schools for providing access to independent, impartial careers advice to their students.
The argument about careers advice provision is a well-trodden debate: online provisions are inadequate, face-to-face professional guidance is too expensive. Even if a school can stretch to employing a careers guidance specialist, they are often stretched too thin over too many pupils, unable to offer in-depth, tailored advice. Online resources are unknown amongst many young people and whilst sites like Plotr do have useful information they can lack the personal touch. With neither option offering a fix-all solution, young people are left reliant upon family and friends for information about opportunities and the world of work, which inevitably limits the range of careers they are exposed to, and helps maintain the middle and upper classes' grip on the top professions.
However, a more innovative use of the internet can bring students into closer contact with the sort of first-hand experience and knowledge of the workplace Cable claims teachers lack. Online mentoring schemes, of the sort run by Brightside, match young people with a mentor working in a profession in which they are interested, who can provide important advice and insight into what their role really entails, and the steps a student needs to take to get there. It's a great offer for students of course, who get to not only 'fill in the gaps' left by patchy careers guidance but can also develop and nurture a more in-depth interest and understanding of a specific industry than they would get from a one-off visiting lecturer or workplace visit. It's also great for the mentors, for whilst many professionals are keen to share their skills with young people, they are often just as busy as teachers and lack the time to reach out by visiting schools, a problem online mentoring solves by allowing students and mentors to communicate at a time and place most convenient to themselves. Plus, industry obviously reaps the benefits of a crop of young people passionate about working in their sector and with a keen and clear understanding of the skills it is essential they develop.
Yet whilst Brightside has little trouble convincing students, teachers and industry over the advantages of our approach, Vince Cable must also not forget the crucial role the government needs to play if careers guidance is to improve. Our schemes are currently funded by our partners in the higher education, charity and corporate sectors, but if the government is serious about making careers guidance fit for the purpose they need to put their money where their mouth is and make sure every young person in Britain has access to a proper mentor - and not just an overworked teacher - if they need one. Well thought out and funded careers guidance is the only effective way to ensure that everyone reaches their full potential, and it's something that needs the government's full attention.