Good but not outstanding: The Ofsted review of career guidance

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You wait for ages for a high-stakes, policy-relevant, if somewhat underwhelming, report on the state of career guidance to come along, and then two come along at once. Following hot on the heels of last week’s government response to the Education Select Committee, comes Ofsted’s Independent review of careers guidance in schools and further education and skills providers. So, in this post I’m going to try and break down what it says and reflect on what it means for the long term.

What is an Ofsted thematic review?

For those living outside of England, Ofsted, is our national inspectorate. Ofsted’s main job is to review the performance of schools, assign schools a grade and recommend a path for improvement. Ofsted remains as a controversial institution with many viewing it as punitive and arbitrary. This debate reached fever pitch earlier in the year after the tragic suicide of a head teacher after a critical Ofsted inspection. This is not the place to rehearse this debate, but suffice to say that I, like many others, would like to see the stakes lowered in such inspections, and a much stronger focus on the supportive development and improvement of schools.

Outside of the direct inspection of schools, Ofsted has another important function. It conducts thematic investigations into educational issues and reports back on the state of the nation. These thematic reviews are not about judging individual schools, but rather about taking the temperature of the whole system.

In 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) asked Ofsted to review careers provision in schools and further education and skills (FE and skills) providers. Over the last academic year, the organisation has conducted a thematic review by visiting 30 schools and 14 further education and skills providers, reviewing a sample of inspection evidence and running focus groups with inspectors, employers and independent learning providers (ILPs).

This review therefore promises to give us one of the clearest descriptions of what careers work is like in England’s schools. Most of the data that we have so far, comes from self-reporting through Compass (the self-audit tool for schools, see the recent review by The Careers & Enterprise Company) and so the opportunity to triangulate this should be invaluable.

Methodological issues

Before reviewing the findings of the report, it is worth thinking a bit about how the study was conducted. Ofsted have helpfully provided a methodological annex which gives us some important insights.

Firstly, it is important to recognise that the research team only visited good or outstanding schools and colleges. This means that the bottom 20% of schools (see Ofsted’s summary of school grades) and colleges weren’t included in this review, which seems like an odd choice for a review attempting to get an overview of the state of the nation.

More positively an attempt was made to construct a balanced and diverse sample of schools and colleges, rather than just selecting the best. But, participation seems to have been on a voluntary basis and so this does raise questions about whether schools and colleges that did not feel confident about their career guidance provision were able to duck out.

Another problem is that the reviews were primarily focused on policy, processes and strategies and did not actually observe the teaching or personal guidance. Again, this seems a missed opportunity as we already have pretty good data about what schools and colleges think they are doing through Compass. It would be nice to get more information about what they are actually doing in the classroom and the interview room.

Despite, this I still think that we should take the findings of this review seriously. As well as the visits there was also a review of literature and an analysis of Ofsted inspection reports. All of this enhances the quality of the study and gives us more confidence about what was found. So, while this might not give us a fully representative study of the full breadth of English schools, it does represent a deep investigation into current practice.

So, what did it find…

Key issues with the system: Schools

In schools the report finds that most schools had strong leadership for their careers provision and were attempting to establish this as a whole school responsibility. They were generally using the Gatsby Benchmarks to structure their provision and linking careers into the curriculum. All schools were involving employers and post-secondary learning providers in their programmes. Most schools were able to provide access to a qualified careers adviser, although there were notable gaps here. Schools were also generally part of a careers hub and able to draw on external support.

Key challenges for schools were around tracking students after they had left the school (Benchmark 3), involving parents in the use of LMI (or involving them more generally) (Benchmark 2) and offering work experience (Benchmark 6) particularly in the aftermath of Covid-19. There were also questions about whether the provision of information, experiences, encounters and personal guidance were respecting the idea of parity of esteem between academic (university) and vocational pathways. In the worst schools, the boundaries between career guidance and marketing to their own sixth form were often blurred. There were also some questions about how effectively schools were able to personalise and adapt career guidance provision for the individual needs of the students (particularly those with additional needs).

Key issues with the system: FE and skills providers

In further education and skills provision (which is typically vocationally focused) organisations generally had strong leadership for their careers provision and appropriately qualified staff involved in its delivery. They were also generally using the Gatsby Benchmarks as a framework for their provision. Career guidance was typically well integrated into the curriculum, although there were a wide variety of models through which this was achieved. Staff were also generally knowledgeable about the world of work and the organisations were linked to employers and to other sources of support such as the careers hubs.

Key challenges for FE and skills providers were around the monitoring of provision and uptake by students, gathering feedback from parents and other stakeholders and involving parents. Organisations often reported that it was difficult to work with schools and to offer provider encounters. While all organisations valued work experience, they often raised several challenges in delivering these opportunities. They are also all provided access to personal guidance, but often reported that they were not able to guarantee this to all students. Provision of career guidance also seemed to be more variable for apprentices than it was for more classroom-based students (e.g. those on T levels).

Recommendations

The report makes the following recommendations.

Schools and FE and skills providers should:

  • ensure that they take advantage of the potential benefits provided by networks like careers hubs, such as support for employer engagement
  • ensure that the careers programme is delivered by staff with the necessary expertise, and with appropriate support from careers specialists
  • continue to develop staff knowledge of technical pathways (including T levels) and promote these equally alongside academic routes, using the DfE’s updated statutory guidance
  • make sure encounters with employers, such as through careers fairs and talks, are delivered in a way that is most beneficial for pupils and learners

The DfE should:

  • consider ways in which it may be possible to improve how post-16 and post-18 destinations data is aggregated back to schools or FE and skills providers, including exploring whether data already held by the DfE could be used for this
  • consider how to increase the attractiveness of the careers adviser role
  • review approaches to disseminating information about T levels to schools and employers
  • make the aims for careers education for pupils in key stage 3 more explicit, including help with key stage 4 options
  • explore ways to improve data collection to get a more accurate picture of the number of careers advisers working in schools and FE and skills providers, and the number of children and young people accessing personal guidance with a suitably qualified adviser

The Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) should:

  • consider how it can ensure that all schools and FE and skills providers (including those that are already in a careers hub) are aware of and able to fully engage with the support it provides
  • consider how it can further support schools and FE and skills providers to work more closely with each other around careers

Ofsted will:

  • use the findings from the review to shape future inspector training on careers guidance

Reflections

The report is a very useful summary of the current state of play in schools and colleges. For years the only substantial data on the state of play has come from the relentlessly positive Careers & Enterprise Company, based on self-reported data gathered from Compass.

The Ofsted review provides considerable support for the picture that we have gleaned so far from existing data. It suggests that in the best schools (let’s say the top 50%), the Gatsby revolution has really taken hold. While there are still a range of issues for schools and colleges to focus on, for these good and outstanding schools there are a lot of reasons to be cheerful. Young people who are attending these schools have a very good chance of benefiting from a high-quality careers programme. This is very different from the last Ofsted thematic review in 2013 which found that career guidance was in a perilous state.

However, reading between the lines of the current review reveals a substantial minority of schools that are not delivering high quality career guidance for a variety of reasons. When we add these to the schools with requires improvement and inadequate grades that were excluded from the study, we can see that there is probably still quite a bit of work to do. Many students are still missing out on high quality career guidance, and, as ever, the worry is that those who are missing out will be patterned by existing forms of disadvantage.

It is also worth noting that Ofsted’s recommendations are fairly tame. While it might be right to talk about a system that is improving and in which good practice is widespread, the actions for the DfE and The Careers & Enterprise Company remain very limited. Most importantly they don’t have anything to say about the ongoing quality assurance of the system, nor about the need for resources to support those that are currently not delivering ‘good career guidance’ to come up to the required standard.

Finally, Ofsted appear to have swallowed the definition of good career guidance set out in the Gatsby Benchmarks wholeheartedly. As I was involved in the original Gatsby research and continue to be a noisy advocate for them, I welcome this. But, given that the top half of schools now seem to have internalised the Gatsby Benchmarks, even if they haven’t always fully achieved them, there is perhaps a missed opportunity in this report to consider what really ‘outstanding career guidance’ might look like. Ofsted could have used this opportunity to present a more stretching vision of how the English system might develop once Gatsby has been fully achieved. Many of the Gatsby Benchmarks are designed to be a minimum standard, rather than the final word on what outstanding provision looks like.

So, all in all this is a good but not outstanding report. It is useful as far as it goes, and brings us some good news (which is emphasised) as well as some less good news (which is largely said rather quietly). Nonetheless, it does provide some important ideas about where some of the big issues are. However, it misses the opportunity to focus in on the weakness and turbo charge our response to them. It also fails to offer much of a vision for the way forwards, which if the system is really as good as it claims, seems like a missed opportunity for an organisation that is dedicated to ‘improving lives by raising standards in education’.

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