Good afternoon everyone.
For anyone who feels as passionately as I do about the value of practical skills, it’s a pleasure to be here in Belfast. This is a city in which skill has always been honoured, whether it’s the skill needed to build a ship or to produce the perfect Ulster Fry.
And it’s a city whose people are, in consequence, more vividly aware than most of how important it is for the young to gain the skills that will serve them well when they try to find their place in the local jobs market. So I congratulate the Institute warmly on their choice of venue for this year’s conference.
Of course I’m fully aware that the different parts of the United Kingdom each have their own approaches to careers guidance. But no one has a monopoly of wisdom in this area and one of the reasons why this conference is so valuable is that it offers the chance for us to compare approaches and learn from each other.
Differences only go so far. What I hope we all have in common is a recognition that even the best skills system in the world can’t deliver half its potential unless it is supported by a structure that helps prospective learners to take well informed decisions.
Like me, many of you will no doubt recall the Everyman Library. The library’s still going strong after more than a century. But I guess most of us still know it best from the pocket-sized red hardbacks that can still be found in any second-hand bookshop.
J M Dent’s original and very laudable aim in establishing the series was to make 1,000 of the classics of world literature available to ordinary working people at a shilling a time.
There are those, no doubt, who would dismiss that aim as an example of Edwardian paternalism. But at a time when compulsory schooling ended at the age of twelve, there was nevertheless a great deal of truth in the epigraph that opened every volume:
_Everyman, I will go with thee
and be thy guide,
In thy most need to go
by thy side.
There’s certainly no doubt that, a hundred years ago, most adults needed guidance to help them progress down the road to self-improvement through self education. Just as it’s true that today, in the 21st century, many people need extra help to get onto the ladder that leads to success in life.
I’m not speaking only of people from disadvantaged backgrounds, though it is for them that the stakes are perhaps highest. Because, if navigating the canon of world literature can be confusing, so can mapping a path through the seemingly inexhaustible range of career options and qualifications routes that are available in the modern world.
Because we are determined to eradicate unfairness and disadvantage from our society, to create an environment in which the only limit on any person’s ability to go far is the extent of their own efforts. We must first identify and then overcome the barriers which currently hinder people from progressing.
So what I want to say to you today is not just about careers guidance but about what good guidance can achieve. Careers guidance makes a difference. It’s in the engine room of social mobility; a vital part of the machinery of social justice.
Good advice doesn’t just transform lives. It transforms our society by challenging the pre-conceived ideas about what each of us seeks. And what all of us can achieve.
I take it that no one here would disagree that one of the biggest barriers that many people face today lies in the inability to match the right learning opportunities with the right employment choices to achieve their aspirations. Unless we inherit great wealth, this is an obstacle that virtually all of us have to face.
And to face it successfully, there are few people who would not do better with good, professional advice of the right kind, at the right time. If we believe in fairness and if we believe in social justice, then we must also believe in the value of advice and guidance in helping people find the right path.
The evidence clearly supports that conclusion.
We know that young people who stay in education or training post-16 are more likely to find employment, and that guidance in the final year of compulsory schooling is an important factor in their decision to stay on. We know that many young people drop out of post-compulsory education or training because it does not meet their expectations, or because their chosen course was unsuitable.
The right guidance is no less important to adults. 82 per cent of adults receiving careers guidance say that it is instrumental in their decision to learn or seek training. And over 20 per cent say that a lack of information is a significant barrier to learning.
Guidance is also an important key in unlocking access to learning and progression for those facing disadvantage, helping them become socially mobile.
Early career decisions can have the most important impacts on mobility through the course of people’s lives. Failing to progress can have a damaging effect on social confidence, which can hamper mobility. There is also evidence that guidance of insufficient quality can create barriers to learning for young people who face significant disadvantages.
Guidance is also essential in helping people aim as high as they can. Alan Milburn recognised this in his report on access to the professions, noting that “guidance is crucial in helping young people to develop ambitious but achievable plans, which are more likely to lead to positive outcomes.”
Sir Martin Harris’s report on widening access to Higher Education reinforces this picture, noting that students with similar qualifications from disadvantaged backgrounds are less likely to apply to and attend the most selective courses or institutions than their more advantaged peers. He also notes the impact of good quality advice on social confidence.
And most recently, Lord Browne has made very clear recommendations in his review of Higher Education. In his view, “[careers guidance should] be delivered by certified professionals who are well-informed, benefit from continued training and professional development and whose status in schools is respected and valued.”
So whether promoting social mobility, or helping people make educational and training choices, the importance of high quality careers guidance cannot be ignored.
Alan Milburn’s report was titled “Unleashing Aspiration”, and that is exactly what I believe high quality careers guidance has the power to do, for young people and adults everywhere.
There is also another important reason why we need to act.
The impact of changing economic circumstances means that skills demands will increase at every level.
As Leitch put it, better skills will be needed at higher levels “to drive leadership, management and innovation - the key drivers of productivity growth”, at intermediate levels to implement investment and innovation, and basic skills are “essential for people to be able to adapt to change”.
The OECD stresses that as emerging economies start to deliver high skills at moderate cost, the OECD countries must themselves reform their skills policies. High quality advice and guidance is key to this development, but as Leitch pointed out “the current system in England is fragmented and fails to integrate advice on learning with careers advice”.
We have to respond to these challenges.
In whichever part of these islands we live, if we seek to promote social renewal by enabling more young people and adults to realise their aspirations of getting on in life; if we seek to support growth and productivity at every level; then effective, high-quality careers guidance is indispensible to our cause.
At present, in England, we are falling short of that ideal far too often. We have not moved on far enough from the days when, to quote Disraeli, “To do nothing and get something formed a boy’s ideal of a manly career”.
So let me outline what we propose to do about it.
Of course, we must start from the position that the coalition Government inherited. And that’s by no means all bad.
But while I recognise that there are examples of the Connexions service providing good careers guidance, the quality of careers advice for young people has not been consistently high. The universal aim of the Connexions service has meant, in practice, a dilution of its capacity to provide high quality, expert, impartial careers guidance.
So I am clear that we need to restore a focus on specialist expertise in careers guidance for young people.
Meanwhile, for adults, I appreciate that the Next Step service is an important achievement. But I want to go further still.
Many of you know that I have long argued for the creation of a single, all-age careers service.
A single, unified careers service would provide major benefits in terms of transparency and accessibility. And a single service with its own unique identity would have more credibility for people within it as well as users than the more fragmented arrangements that are currently in place.
There are a range of other benefits, including the ability to support young people more effectively during their transition to adulthood. And that’s why creating an all-age service will be one of my and my Departments’ most important tasks over the coming months and years.
As we go about this, it’s important to recognise that we’re not starting from scratch. On the contrary, we will build on Next Step, and on Connexions because we must not lose the best of either.
In advocating this, I am certainly under no illusions about the Spending Review settlement. But if we are going to create the sort of comprehensive guidance service that I and many others think we need, then we will simply have to do more with less.
That’s by no means an impossible task. Not if you approach it with pride in the importance of the task and with a willingness to use innovation and creativity where money is in short supply.
So we will find new ways of providing face to face guidance that give young people, adults and communities what they need, and get the best from careers professionals
Bringing careers advice for young people and adults together will help us to achieve some savings. But we will need to go further, and become much more imaginative in the way we make use of resources.
We have a golden opportunity to build a service that will endure and the sector must rise to this challenge. There are always a hundred reasons to delay action until times change.
There are doubters who will argue that we should wait until the financial situation is easier. Or until other reforms have bedded down. Or because it’s just less bother to let sleeping dogs lie.
But I am a doer not a doubter, I believe that reform is needed now. Both to meet our national labour market needs better and to widen individual opportunities.
We must build a path to a fairer and more open society.
My vision for that future rests on two core principles:
The first is that independent advice must be underpinned by professional expertise. That implies both strong leadership and a workforce of the highest calibre.
Whatever good careers advisers achieve - and it’s a great deal - their public status too infrequently matches the importance of their job.
So we will revitalise the professional status of careers guidance, looking to the Careers Profession Alliance to establish common professional standards and a code of ethics for careers professionals.
We will implement the recommendations of the Careers Profession Task Force. In doing so, we will consider the Taskforce’s recommendation on levels of qualification, particularly the speed at which we could move towards establishing Level 6 - equivalent to an Honours degree - as the minimum standard for practising careers advisers within the service.
We will also work with the Careers Profession Alliance and with awarding bodies to ensure that careers qualifications include an appropriate focus on the essentials of careers guidance.
And we will insist that the all-age service meets demanding quality standards. Competition will be important in avoiding the complacency that can cause quality to slide.
But most importantly, whether the public comes to recognise a culture of excellence amongst careers advisers depends mainly on you.
On your ability to embrace the opportunities that reform offers. On your willingness to step up to the task of raising the status of your profession. On your determination to deliver the change we need to make individual dreams come true as they fulfil their potential.
The second core principle of reform is independence.
Young people and adults need impartial advice, which is independent of any organisation with a vested interest, and which is underpinned by objective and realistic information about careers, skills and the labour market.
Just as I want to make sure that everyone has access to professional, independent advice, I also want to make sure that institutions know where that advice can be found.
We will discuss with the sector how best to do that, perhaps by establishing a register of providers who meet the highest standards, and by a kite-mark, and by awards for excellence.
I want all careers advisers to take pride in their profession, and to take their own professional development seriously. They must be seen to be the experts in their field and the most trusted source of advice.
I want the professional organisations to lead the process of continuing to strengthen the status of advisers. That’s in their own interests, just as it’s in ours to empower them to play that role
Because with greater independence comes greater responsibility.
The rationale for change and the basic aims for reform are clear. So we need now to get on with the job.
It is never too soon to fight the battle for social justice. We must not delay.
So I can announce today that we will put in place as much as possible of the basis for an all-age careers service by September next year. And building on that, we will push ahead so that the all-age service is in place by April 2012.
An indispensible part of that work will be gaining the confidence of educational institutions at all levels.
Individual schools and colleges know their own learners and are better placed to assess their needs than anyone else. So it follows that on them must fall the responsibility for ensuring that all learners get the best advice and guidance possible.
That should, of course, include information on vocational options like apprenticeships, as well as on academic options.
I know that many schools do this very well already. They work effectively with their local Connexions service, and I have no doubt that they will continue to work effectively with the all-age careers service.
But we ask too much of our teachers when we expect them to be excellent pedagogues and professional careers advisors. So too many schools are not equipped to provide young people with a full understanding of the options open to them. As a result, the ambitions of some are prematurely limited.
That’s a waste that we just can’t afford.
And that’s why I am clear that close partnerships - whereby schools work together with expert, independent advisers - must be at the heart of our new arrangements.
I’m acutely aware that, with so much already expected of them, it would be asking too much to expect schools to keep up to date with all the latest developments in the labour market. So I want them to recognise the importance of independent, impartial, professional careers guidance, and to invest in it.
I am confident that schools will want to secure the best for their students.
For our part, we will provide them with the information and tools to secure independent and impartial guidance that empowers pupils make informed decisions about their future.
With over 40 per cent of young people progressing to higher education these days, there’s an important role for universities too.
Universities will continue to provide their own advice and guidance. But we will still encourage use of the all-age service and encourage its quality standards to be widely applied.
I recognise that all this represents a significant shift for many within the careers sector, and, in particular, for local authorities, who are currently responsible for ensuring all young people receive careers guidance through the Connexions service.
So let me make it clear that they will continue to have a vital role to play. Without them, we could not meet our target of achieving full participation by 2015.
Local authorities in England will continue to be responsible for helping vulnerable youngsters to move forward in their lives and to participate in education, employment or training.
They will need to maintain - as they do now - accurate data on young people’s participation in order to target support effectively on those who would otherwise suffer disadvantage.
All this amounts to a serious programme of work. But my ambition, and that of the Coalition Government, does not stop there. Over time, I want to create an environment in which English careers guidance is recognised for the important public good it is, in which young people, adults, schools, colleges, universities and whole communities see its value, use it and invest in it.
That’s a big task and it will require us to make some important changes. And I wanted this conference to be the first to hear them.
I can confirm today that:
First, we will ask the schools inspectorate to carry out a thematic review of careers education and other information, advice and guidance services for young people;
Second, we will ask relevant national bodies to work with the careers sector to help schools, colleges and training organisations to learn from and share examples of good practice.
Third, we will collate and publish clear evidence of the benefits and uses of careers guidance.
Fourth, we will look at ways of recognising success and excellence, for example, developing awards for careers guidance professionals and those who have benefitted from it.
And finally, we will consult you, the careers sector, on the scope for introducing a License to Practice for careers guidance, and the role it might play in securing quality.
I will be asking the members of the Careers Profession Taskforce to monitor the progress we are making across this range of work, and intend to follow their recommendation to ask them to do so via two reports to the Government, one in March 2011 and one in March 2012.
Careers guidance is often an important part of the journey for each individual. Very often when advice is bad, so are outcomes.
But provided at the right time and in the right context, good advice from a trusted source can make the difference between sustained engagement in education, employment or training and a lifetime of disappointment,
Engaging, inspiring, increasing social mobility - the job you do is the stuff of dreams.
My plans aim to a radical and challenging programme of change. Delivering it successfully will require not just the efforts of those directly involved in providing careers guidance services, but of the wider education and training sector, too.
Nevertheless, I know that the will for change, and a recognition of the benefits it can bring to millions of people’s lives, thrives here.
And I know that the Institute will welcome the announcement of an all-age service for England.
You called for it. We promised it in opposition. And we will deliver it in Government.
In our hands lies the chance to change peoples prospects. What greater privilege, greater challenge can there be than the chance to change the future.
I trust that you will have questions for me.