Over the weekend, Tristram Hunt, the shadow Education Secretary, was grandstanding on career guidance. According to Hunt, we need to do something about the aspirations of young women "girls can be taught they can be architects or they can be engineers or they can be doctors, beginning at primary school". Hunt, is right, or at least partially right, career education in England's schools isn't good enough. However, this is true for both girls and boys and at primary and secondary level.
Tristram Hunt is firing the latest shots in one of the slowest running political gunfights ever conducted. Early shots were fired by John Major's government in the early 1990s when they privatised the careers service. Labour shot back by turning the careers service into the little-loved Connexions in 2000. A few years later Alan Milburn turned his gun on his own party's policy, noting that that Connexions did little to support social mobility.
It wasn't long before Michael Gove rode into the fray. For him careers advisers were unwanted "middle men" who were firmly in his sights. So he pulled the trigger and removed over £200 million of resources from careers as part of the government's austerity drive. However, while the press largely ignored this, it didn't go entirely unnoticed. It wasn't the Labour Party that led the opposition, but Conservative MP Graham Stuart, Chair of the Education Select Committee. The committee issued a report expressing "concerns about the consistency, quality, independence and impartiality of careers guidance now being offered to young people". The committee then called Michael Gove in for a memorable discussion in which he denounced careers advisers as a "self-interested" careers lobby who "lack intellectual rigour" and talk "garbage".
Meanwhile, our research found that the quality and quantity of career guidance across the country was in decline. It would be nice to think that Michael Gove's willful destruction of young people's access to help with their educational and career choices played a role in his downfall, but it was at best just one of many straws that eventually broke his back. However, career guidance proved to be one place where Nicki Morgan, the new Education Secretary, could try and make amends.
Morgan quickly found £20 million and determined to use it to improve career guidance. She launched a new careers company performing a deft U-turn that surprised Labour and left the Conservatives looking good despite their recent history on careers. In fact the new funding is probably too small and the new company too poorly thought out for it to make much of a difference in the light of the years of neglect, but at least they have acted.
All of this leaves the Labour Party in a difficult position. This was an issue that they thought they were safe to bash the government on. However, they neglected to develop a policy of their own, which means that the last minute unveiling of the new careers company by Nicki Morgan puts them on the back foot in the run up to the election.
Much of what Tristram Hunt has been saying recently is right. Career education and guidance does need greater support from government, it can support social mobility, it should start early, it does need to involve employers and should include young people doing some work experience. However, Labour need to do a bit more than just talk in vague terms about this.
A convincing policy on career education and guidance would include a promise to provide more funding, to revise the statutory guidance and to support schools in building meaningful links with employers. If Tristram Hunt is serious about this, he needs to make sure something substantial appears in the Labour Manifesto on career guidance. Anything else is just a wild shot in the dark!