Louise Preston, Teach First Programme Lead - School Leadership
Louise Preston
Programme Manager for School Leadership, Teach First

Careers Leadership: our latest thinking

In response to external evaluations and the COVID-19 outbreak, our Programme Manager for School Leadership shares our latest thinking on careers leadership.

The full extent of challenges that COVID-19 presents for careers learning is still unknown. It is clear, however, that progression routes for young people (and the labour market) are now more uncertain. It is now more vital than ever that careers leaders are well-equipped and supported. They face the challenge of offering quality careers-learning experiences in a digital world, and ensuring all students, particularly the most vulnerable, are set up for success beyond school (in a COVID-19 world and beyond). 

The DfE Careers Strategy highlights the need for careers leaders to access good quality training. They also need opportunities to collaborate with schools in similar circumstances, opening space to generate solutions and share ideas. For the next academic year this principle rings even more true. Careers leaders need to be supported to overcome new challenges, while training needs to be relevant to the new context we find ourselves in.

Since piloting our Careers Leader training programme in 2015, we’ve undertaken external evaluations from the University of Derby, ARAD Research and most recently the Institute of Employment Studies (IES). We will now be looking at this feedback through the lens of the COVID-19 outbreak, to ensure our programme provides the right support for schools in 20-21.  

Across all our evaluations, we see that our Careers Leader programme is highly-valued by careers leaders and senior leadership teams. Our most recent IES evaluation showed:  

  • 94% of respondents said they would recommend the programme to other school leaders. 
  • 98% of schools participating in 2018/19 submitted a high-quality strategy at the end of the programme. Careers leaders in case study schools reported a shift towards a more systematic careers programme, that better meets the needs of all pupils.   
  • Full achievement of the Gatsby Benchmarks takes time, but participating in the programme rapidly starts to bring improvements to the quality of careers provision.

What we’ve learned about Careers Leader training 

We want to build further on these successes, now more urgently than ever as schools respond to COVID-19. This will impact both what young people need from a careers programme, and what careers activities a school can deliver. Here are our top considerations for careers leader training in 20-21, based on our recent IES evaluation and our understanding of the current climate: 

1. Stay rooted in the practical 

Careers leaders have shared that they value how the programme is designed to support practical application. They value hearing examples of what works and how the activities are structured to develop a careers programme, strategy and implementation plan that the school can use for the next three years.   

We consider this component of careers leader training design will be even more vital in 20-21 to support time restricted middle-senior leaders to make rapid improvements to school provision, and focus on what they need to do in the short, medium and long term. We want to support careers leaders to implement changes to their provision in year with the structure, support and accountability of the programme. 

2. Networking is vital  

Peer-to-peer learning and exposure to experts and careers organisations has always been a core component of our training design. Careers leaders value elements of the programme that support the growth of their network and exposure to opportunities. These include sessions on how to maintain professional networks, input from external speakers and introductions to careers organisations and potential partners.  

As careers leaders work to respond to the implications of the current crisis, the support of networks will be essential. At the end of this year 333 schools will have completed the programme, so we’re looking at how we can build more connections between our alumni and existing cohorts.  

3. Lack of time is a considerable challenge 

73% of survey respondents reported lack of time as a barrier to both their role and training. Programmes need to facilitate prioritisation: what is an immediate priority and what needs to be planned as a longer-term improvement? Personalised support is also key. Careers leaders need to spend time focusing on what matters for their school context and be given the opportunity to ask experts specific questions. 

Time was also highlighted as a challenge to online learning. Whilst an event is a protected day in the diary, online learning can be difficult to prioritise. Online learning offers greater flexibility and opportunities to differentiate for each learner, but careers leaders have shared that they find lengthy reflections and research papers difficult to engage with in a busy working week. There is an important balance to strike to ensure the rigour of learning matches the expertise required of good careers leaders. We need to ensure learning is digestible and relevant to everyday practice.  

4. Content needs to be relevant to what schools need

Our programme is structured around the Gatsby Benchmarks, which outline best practice for school careers guidance. These are the cornerstone for any careers programme (whatever the context), and careers leader training should continue with it now and beyond.

As with attainment, we will likely see a wide range of student needs emerging in careers guidance, and must act to fully prepare them for the transition from education to employment. Schools will need to carefully consider how to tailor their approach to address the needs of all students, particularly those at even greater risk of becoming NEET than previous years. Schools on our programmes have demonstrated excellent practice in delivering targeted activities, but this has frequently been highlighted as an area that is difficult to do well. This is especially true in the process of tracking student experiences and intentions to properly tailor careers activities.

Exploring new opportunities

For young people preparing to enter an uncertain labour market, careers leaders need to be supported to understand the potential implications for jobs and progression routes (both in their region and nationally). Accessing Labour Market Information (Benchmark 2) has frequently been reported as challenging by schools we work with; an issue that could easily be exacerbated by the current uncertainty. However, there is an opportunity presented by the widening exposure of different sectors, job role and skills in our everyday as we analyse the impact of COVID-19 on the economy. Young people will be exposed to seeing parents work at home, the multitude of key worker roles and the different sectors available.

There is also an opportunity presented by the growth in our familiarity with virtual meetings and events. Schools in more isolated areas have frequently struggled to access employers for meaningful encounters and workplace visits. The virtual context offers an opportunity to introduce greater variety into careers programmes and workplaces (though caution should be taken to not replace in-person experiences entirely). We need to explore the question of ‘what does good look like in a virtual context?’, and how the definition of a careers programme will respond in kind. Alongside the challenges for young people and schools delivering careers, there is huge potential for innovation in the year ahead.

We need careers leaders now more than ever

Careers leaders face a challenging year ahead. But they have never been more important in securing positive transitions for young people, particularly the most vulnerable. Good training and networking opportunities for this school role is a key lever in ensuring all young people are prepared for success.

We also need to see schools continuing to support the careers agenda, alongside welfare and attainment gap priorities. Our evaluation shows that senior leadership teams can take steps to support their careers leaders by granting them time to engage with training, encouraging them to be proactive and generate ideas, approving proposals and brokering relationships between careers leaders and other staff when they themselves are not a senior leader.

Most importantly, let’s support careers leaders to step back and be strategic, to prioritise what needs to be done now and what needs to take place over the coming years. 

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