Opinion: A poor careers move

Nick Clegg and Vince Cable at a factory 2 - Some rights reserved by Liberal DemocratsMy name’s Adam and I’m a careers teacher. This presents something of a challenge because it turns out that as a teacher I know nothing about careers.

I must say before continuing that I am a fan of Vince. On the credit crunch, on banking regulation and on bonuses I not only agree with what he says, but also with how he says it. This is part of why I was so surprised, and not a little bit irked, that he said of teachers “They know how universities work, they know what you have to do to get an A-level, they know about UCAS forms – but they know absolutely nothing about the world of work. They don’t know how to direct people to apprenticeships or traineeships which we’re now doing as a first stage for people”.

I am fully aware of the way that the media often quote people out of context so I have taken great care to read what he actually, and there is no way around it: he was clearly referring to the fact that most teachers are graduates and that is what he said.

To be fair to Vince had he said that some teachers know little about apprenticeships and the world of work I would agree he had a point. Likewise had he focused on the lack of resources that mean that many schools are not able to proper fit careers education in, I would have applauded. However his sweeping statement was disparaging and ill-advised for several reasons.

Firstly it is such a crass over-generalisation. I believed I mentioned that I am, amongst other things, a careers teacher. Yesterday, my colleague, two outside speakers and I were delivering a lesson to year 10 (age 14-15) on…apprenticeships.

I have also recently delivered lessons on, amongst other things, vocational sources, interview skills and employability, and have had speakers in my lessons from apprenticeship providers, colleges and employers.

Secondly, stating that teachers don’t understand the world of work because they’re mostly graduates is distinctly ironic for an MP. I’m personally sure that many MP do understand apprenticeships, but then I don’t think being a graduate comes close to excluding you from that.

Thirdly, a lot of schools do certainly spend less time than they should on careers advice, simply because of the immense amount of pressure to deliver exam results. Naturally when special measures beckons for schools with ‘poor results’ something has to give, and that is always going to be the thing that isn’t examined or measured – like PSHE, Citizenship and Careers (all of which I teach).

Fourthly (irony part II) Gove’s reforms to the ways that results are measured have massively disincentivised schools from offering the sort of vocational and other non-traditional courses that can very effectively and directly lead students into apprenticeships and training courses.

Finally (irony part III), government funding cuts have significantly hit the Careers Service, significantly affecting the amount that the careers professional are available to support teachers.

Some of what Vince said was sound – the need for better guidance for those schools who don’t follow best practice for instance. However this message will clearly be lost in the fallout from what he said, and on this occasion it’s hard to blame the media for that.

I hope that at the very least Vince will follow this up by issuing a clear programme of what a Liberal Democrat government would do differently to actually support careers teaching in schools, particularly in terms of proper resourcing, and how they would reduce the other pressures on teachers to allow more focus on careers.

This article represents the author’s personal view and not that of his employer.

* Adam Killeya is a Lib Dem member, activist and town councillor. He has held various positions in the party including as a parliamentary candidate and agent. He is currently Regional Chair of Devon & Cornwall Lib Dems. In the real world he is Head of Sixth Form of a Secondary School in Cornwall.

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14 Comments

  • “A careers teacher”? Is that what they call it when they get a teacher to give careers advice? I’ve genuinely never heard of it before and I’m not that long out of school.

  • Peter Watson 10th Mar '14 - 12:23pm

    “I am a fan of Vince.”
    I was until I read and heard what he said about teachers – the tone of voice (dismissive about knowing about how to get an A-level, emphatic about knowing absolutely nothing about the world of work) makes it hard to give him the benefit of the doubt over his words being quoted out of context. I would be grateful if anybody can provide a link to an apology / retraction / clarification by Vince so that I might take him off my list of disappointing senior Lib Dems.

    In the interests of disclosure, I am not a teacher (and am unlikely to become one given the way that politicians – even Lib Dems – seem to treat them). As a graduate and parent, I know about university and how to get an A-level, and recently I have learnt a lot about UCAS forms. Having worked in industry as a chemical engineer for 25 years, I would not pretend to know any more about the world of work than someone employed as a teacher for that time.

  • Engineering teacher 10th Mar '14 - 12:44pm

    Vince spoke unwisely, caused offence, and should apologize. Or did he already? It was likely a deliberate attempt to inject one emotion into the debate, but predictably backfired by injecting another.

    To teach something effectively, a person does not need an immersive experience of that thing. Indeed, the contrary can be true, because the immersive experience can mask the wider contextual view – and the wider context can be part of what a teacher is there to provide.

  • Adam Killeya 10th Mar '14 - 2:08pm

    When I say I’m a careers teacher, my main teaching subject is Personal Development (PD), which is a triarchy of PSHE (Sex Ed, Drugs Ed, etc) , Citizenship and Careers, and most students have one hour a week of PD. Therefore my colleague and I are the specialist careers teachers in the school – we deliver all the units on Year 9 Options, Work Experience, Post-16 etc. This also means that we have both been on appropriate training, and we have links with lots of relevnt outside agencies. It is true that in a lot of schools it’s simply teachers of ‘other stuff’ who also do a bit of careers, but not in mine. Hence my objection to sweeping generalisations,,,

  • Engineering teacher 10th Mar '14 - 2:17pm

    Vince appears to have claimed that the problem is that teachers are ignorant. That was neither helpful nor accurate. On the contrary, the problems are likely to include (a) too few teachers (b) too little time to teach (c) not enough resources available and/or (d) absence of effort by government and/or employers to make the preferred career path attractive.

  • @William Hobhouse
    “Quite persistently on the Conference Fringe, we heard that there weren’t enough engineers and technicians coming through the school system for the skilled manufacturing jobs of the future.”

    How doe s that fit with what Vince Cable said though? Engineers need to obtain a university degree and those degrees are amongst the most challenging and demanding degree courses in the country. The manufacturing industry desperately needs those good quality engineers, but they are exactly the kind of people who are going to benefit from teachers pushing them down the academic route of A-levels, UCAS forms, etc, so what on earth was Cable talking about? Does he think that in order for British manufacturing to compete globally we need to persuade people who aren’t good academically, but might be handy with a spanner, to be pushed in that direction? What a bizarre misunderstanding of the modern world.

  • Gwyn Williams 10th Mar '14 - 2:40pm

    When I was in school, over 30 years ago,the careers teacher used to leave half a dozen leaflets in the school library and ask to which University you were applying. In Wales we now have Gyrfa Cymru or Careers Wales. At one meeting with my son the Gyrfa Cymru representative suggested he became a builder for which he has no aptitude or interest. At the next he spent an hour insisting that he should go to an FE college even claiming that in Wales the Statement of Special needs could continue there. My son is limited in the options that he has but if he is not to spend a lifetime on benefits, it will be down to his parents not the employees of the state.

  • I would have liked to have responded more fully to Vince’s comments, but unfortunately as a teacher I haven’t had time to do so!

    I am a secondary teacher in Scotland, teaching Modern Studies – a mixture of politics and sociology – to pupils between the ages of 11 and 18 (at the extremes.) I’ve only been doing that for a couple of years, though – before that, I was working in financial services for 15 years. So I do have experience of life outside education, and as many more mature entrants to teaching come in that experience will broaden.

    Vince’s point seems to relate to work training, apprenticeships and other “skills for work” courses which schools can offer. I’m really keen on these, as not every pupil has the ability or desire to go to university and there has to be a keen positive destination for them on leaving school. The problem is, with the radical changes to the curriculum in Scotland at the moment, these types of courses are just not happening to the extent they should because teachers and schools just don’t have the time for it. But to brand all teachers as not knwing anything about the word of work is just lazy, and not what I’d expect from Vince.

  • Julian Critchley 10th Mar '14 - 6:14pm

    @William Hobhouse

    I think that people might need to have a bit ore of a think about what they say before they say it. What do we mean by “engineers and technicians” for “skilled manufacturing jobs” ? There are two issues here :

    Firstly, if we’re talking about highly qualified engineers, then they don’t come out of schools, and never will. They come out of universities or, they emerge from apprenticeship schemes with manufacturing firms. When companies complain about the absence of people with exactly the skillset they want, then the obvious rejoinder is : why, do you not train people yourself ? The problem with have in this country is not so much that schools have somehow stopped churning out mechanics, engineers and technicians – they never did. It’s that apprenticeship programmes in engineering and manufacturing firms are much rarer than they were up until the 1980s. Essentially, under Thatcherism, many companies offloaded the vital – but unprofitable – task of training their future workers. They then moaned that the state was not providing them with what they used to pay for (while dodging the taxes which might have funded an education system which WOULD provide them with what they were after !). A school is never going to be able to provide the sort of specific training which is required for anything but the most generic of jobs. I do think some firms need to take a long hard look at what they provide, before pointing the finger of failure at other people.

    Secondly, the statistics simply don’t back up these claims. There ARE unemployed engineers and technicians out there – even highly-qualified university graduates. So why do firms persist in claiming that these people don’t exist ? There’s two possibilities : the generous one is that the unemployed engineers don’t live in the areas with the vacancies, because of the lop-sided nature of our country’s economic geography. Fair enough. But the second, rather less sympathetic, answer, is that there are plenty of qualified engineers and technicians -BUT NOT AT THE PRICE THE FIRM WANTS TO PAY. It’s a lot easier for a firm to blame someone else for a non-existent skills shortage than it is to admit that they’re not willing to downsize the director’s bonus in order to pay a decent wage to a skilled employee (and so they recruit in eastern Europe where they can get such skills at half the price).

    So that’s a rather different issue, and one which the neo-Liberals (yes, that’s you, Orange Bookers…) tend to be very quiet about. Much easier to moan inaccurately about poor state provision than point the finger at short-termist greed in the private sector.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Mar '14 - 10:56am

    During the years I spent as admissions tutor for my university department of Computer Science, the bane of my life was the poor quality and misleading advice which teachers tended to give to sixth-formers regarding our subject.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th Mar '14 - 11:34am

    Julian Critchley

    Secondly, the statistics simply don’t back up these claims. There ARE unemployed engineers and technicians out there – even highly-qualified university graduates. So why do firms persist in claiming that these people don’t exist ?

    I’ve been involved in a lot of discussion with employers about this issue recently. Yes, it is a paradox that on the one hand we are always being told about “skills shortages” in these areas, on the other that graduates in science and engineering subjects often find it tough to get jobs.

    There is something in the idea that many companies are not willing to invest in training, and so rely on someone else somewhere else to do that training. Mostly graduates are not work ready, there’s aspects of work that have to be learned on site. A company that will not do this and instead relies on poaching or importing people with that workplace training done elsewhere is parasitical. Also, particular abuse should be thrown at those companies who complain about a “skills shortage”, expect that problem to be solved through the education system, yet do all they can not to pay tax – again, such companies are parasites. If you won’t do it yourself, if you’re a state junkie who expects the state to do the work for you, at least pay your fair share of tax so it has the money to do so.

    But, but … even after this there are real issues. In my subject, there’s a well-known article here which notes that many supposedly well-qualified graduates actually completely lack the skills their qualifications should say they have. Employers tell me they also experience huge problems with “soft skills”, that is things like basic literacy, good manners, personal discipline and so on.

    On the skills issue, part of the problem is that we have a “bums in seats” attitude to higher education. We pack them in, and actually quality doesn’t count for much. In this country, it’s considered bad to fail anyone, you just can’t afford to do it at university level, it loses you income and a high failure rate pulls you down the league tables. At the lower levels in the university pecking order, what’s taught is pretty basic, at the upper levels funding and prestige are all about research income, so teaching tends to be done as a side-issue, and seen as something only second-rate academics have any real interest in.

    It’s also the case that Science and Engineering subjects are still seen as not quite what the brightest should be doing. Anyone who’s good at science A-levels tends to be pushed into Medicine, leaving science and engineering to scrabble for who’s left. The REAL entrance grades (i.e. what they actually take you in on as opposed to what they advertise as taking you in on) for many science and engineering subjects are often shockingly low – while the Medical School may be turing away AAA students, Engineering departments at the same university can be struggling to fill their places with CCC students. It’s a social class thing, Medicine is seen as a proper upper middle class profession, anything else scientific or engineering is, well, not really respectable in class terms.

    On the soft skills, it seems to me we’ve created a very damaging culture, where we are all supposed to be thrusting entrepreneurs, which is interpreted as narcissists who push themselves forward by trampling over others, and who succeed in life through the gift of the gab and nothing else. Our youngsters all aspire to be that sort of person. Look at those silly television programmes which encourage that way of thinking, yet pretend to be about the “world of work” with words like “Apprentice” in the title. The reality is that for most jobs, having that sort of self-centred “it’s all about me” personality is a disaster. This is what I hear time and time again from employers, too many British kids have a big “attitude” problem, that makes them worthless as employees.

  • daft ha'p'orth 11th Mar '14 - 12:23pm

    ” we are all supposed to be thrusting entrepreneurs, which is interpreted as narcissists who push themselves forward by trampling over others”

    Yes. The adoration of know-nothing managerialism has played merry hell with the technology (and university) sectors. Engineering is portrayed as requiring a loud mouth and a lofty attitude, so the devil take the details (you can hire other people for that), just as long as you look good in a suit. In reality, what is typically required to do a good job in engineering includes a detail-oriented mindset, a good grasp of the subject matter and a lot of persistence, all of which is curiously close to what is actually required to do a good job in managing an engineering project. The funny thing is that I get the impression they instituted this entrepreneurial nonsense in an attempt to legitimise engineering as a career direction, whereas what they’ve actually achieved is reductio ad absurdum. So it goes.

  • Engineering teacher 11th Mar '14 - 12:39pm

    Matthew Huntbach identifies another problem missed by Vince, that of the sometime poor communications between different bodies. Some schools may not bother or have time to communicate with universities, similarly some universities might not seeing it as part of their job to outreach to schools. But that ill-advised culture does seem to be changing, at least in engineering.

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