06/08/2013 10:57 BST | Updated 08/10/2013 06:07 BST

Careers Guidance: Time to Redraw the Map


Two news items have caught my eye this week. Firstly, the CBI's well-publicised report, Tomorrow's Growth, as well as providing a welcome reminder of the parlous state of careers guidance available to young people, makes a strong case for tackling 'the idea that the A-levels and three-year degree model is the only route to a good career'. It argues that not only should universities be far more flexible in their offerings - increasing part-time options and sandwich courses - if they are to meet the future needs of employers in sectors such as IT, engineering and construction, but alternative, vocational routes ought to be better publicised, supported and valued. Slightly despairingly the report does point out that we've been trying to make the parity of esteem argument, without success, 'since Prince Albert established the Royal Commission in 1851', but this is a strong and welcome intervention from the CBI, and I hope it will be taken notice of.

At the same time The Telegraph website has been running a piece on the top 12 universities for getting a job. Although the data is not without its problems, by recording graduate employment or engagement in further study six months after graduation I suspect this will make the results even more surprising for some in our Russell Group-obsessed government. Of the top 12 only four - Bristol, Cambridge, Newcastle and York - are in the Russell Group, with York being one of 2012's 'new entrants' in any case. And I'm considerably confident that few people will guess the top four performers. In ascending order, they are University of Northampton, Glasgow Caledonian University, University of Derby and, out there in front with a more than impressive 97.3% of students walking into employment or further study within six months .... Robert Gordon University.

What both these reports reinforce for me is the ever more pressing need to move away from assumptions based in too many instances on prejudice not evidence ('employers only recruit from the Russell Group, 'apprenticeships are only for those who can't make it to university'). We desperately need to embark on a sophisticated and evidenced-based debate about how our education and training system in all its crucial diversity can respond to the future needs of our economy and society - and as a card-carrying historian I would start by trying to move us on from the limiting and unhelpful 'academic versus vocational' dichotomy. Most of all of course we need to make sure that that debate turns to action, and soon. The CBI report points clearly to the need for the Government to rethink some of its priorities and approaches in terms of young - and older - people's routes to employment. But while the Government is busy thinking I hope that universities will get on and heed the CBI's call to 'be more innovative' and that employers will indeed 'roll up their sleeves and expand high quality alternative routes where degrees are not the best option for young people'.

Then that will just leave us with the conundrum of how to make sure people know about these innovative and high quality options because it all comes back around to access to careers advice and guidance in the end, and if ever something needed prioritising, careers guidance is it. Without adequate signposting an avenue might look like just a dead end, and until we find a way to fill the vacuum left by the end of the Connexions service and the advent of the inadequately funded duty on schools to provide access to careers advice and guidance too many students will remain unaware of the variety of different avenues available to them, however innovative and high quality they may be.