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Careers Education is Stuck in the Past and is Failing Students

Actual, meaningful work experience is invaluable in ways you may never have considered and could conceivably shape choices, careers and ultimately lives, says Edd Williams

Edd Williams
by Edd Williams
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“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” It’s impossible not to remember this quote any time I have a conversation with schools about careers and academic advice and not just because of the Gatsby benchmarks.

Like the avocado bath suite, the careers advice that is offered had its time and place, it’s just that the time and place was 30 years ago, and despite many people’s best efforts we are dragged inexorably back to that outmoded, teacher-led, form-filling anachronistic nonsense.

The tragedy is, despite all the myriad evidence that has been presented to reinforce this claim we still can’t reach a consensus on it.

Too many schools refuse to accept there is an issue and rather than embrace the opportunity to do things better they hunker down and dig in.

The frustration I had, and still have, is that schools I speak to won’t give countenance to the argument they could maybe do things differently, there’s been a swelling of impotent rage at the ‘shutters down’ rhetoric that accompanies so many of my conversations.

That a profession that encourages the free exchange of ideas, embraces change and welcomes fresh eyes on old problems should be so obdurate in an area that doesn’t fall within their sphere of expertise was baffling to me.

I know this country has supposedly had ‘enough of experts’, but when it comes to things as piffling as every students’ future I tend to fall into the ‘they might be quite useful’ camp.

I thought that maybe if parents knew about this they would share my outrage, and what better way to get them informed than to ask the press, TV, local radio etc to take up arms.

But they didn’t care, even the National Careers Week, which engaged over a million students, got absolutely nothing in terms of coverage.

And therein lies the problem – no one’s saying anything. Yes there’s a new ‘Strategy’ and we have the ‘Benchmarks’ but it’s still just box ticking. People are given new titles, extra responsibilities, but no money and no expertise is being offered to address the issue, and so I carry on tilting at windmills.

The worst of it is that too often the advice given is altogether far too cynical and seeks to uphold a politically motivated agenda of getting students into university so there are some shiny stats to print on poster board and stick to the front gates.

Now, it may seem that I’ve conflated academic and careers advice here but there is too great a crossover between the two to not.

It’s an unfortunate truth that we, the British, can be a little snobbish… I know, shocking.

Sadly, snobbery is leading to the promotion of universities as the best route to access that ‘dream life’ when the reality is, that may no longer be the case.

In the rush to promote equality of opportunity, the metric changed to embrace school leaving destinations as being a one-horse race – university or bust.

The world’s moved on, employers have moved on, the advice hasn’t.

Yes, there’s been a push on apprenticeships, but it’s still very much seen as lesser.

Advising studying at university for its own sake is an entirely valid and worthy aspiration, but if it’s predicated on a desire to bolster stats or on the increasingly flimsy suggestion that it’s in service of accessing certain professions, then it needs addressing.

The costs are simply too high to disregard the mounting evidence that many careers are best accessed through routes other than pure academia.

It’s of course all too easy to start finger pointing without offering some solutions, so let me iterate as I always have, despite the seeming anti-teacher rhetoric, that it is possible to condemn the trappings and actions of an institution without condemning those within it.

I know that for the most part there is a much greater willingness to address these issues than funding and the political climate allows for.

My frustration is with those people who pretend they don’t see the elephant and won’t accept any challenge to their authority as it removes the desire for parents to seek corroborating evidence elsewhere which is damaging at best and utterly negligent at worst.

So here it is, my one shot, free at the point of entry, foolproof piece of careers advice that is the thing done most badly, most often and too late. Work experience.

Not the dreary fortnight at the end of Year 10 that serves only to highlight the absence of desire to work sweeping up hair, at a kindergarten or in a forgotten computer spares shop.

No, actual meaningful work experience starting from the earliest possible age and done consistently throughout one’s schooling.

In fact let’s reimagine what we mean by work experience – rather think of it just as experience. Meaning not just the poor facsimile of working, but actually doing informational interviewing, speaking with people in various professions and creating opportunities whereby students can analyse what and how they feel about career paths and can confirm or deny their interest in a field.

Work experience is invaluable in ways you may never have considered and could conceivably shape choices, careers and ultimately lives.

Whether a student is considering what GCSEs or A levels to choose, or is looking at university and degree choices, or an apprenticeship, this is relevant and pertinent to the decision-making process.

But why is it good? Suppose for a moment at the age of 15 you were considering a career in law, now suppose you made all your decisions based on that supposition.

You emerge from university some 6 years later with an LLB/LPC and a bunch of other letters hanging about your name.

You walk in to that first job and behold, you hate it. It’s not what you thought, expected or wanted but you’ve made your bed now so…

Law as a profession, like all careers, is an artificial construct. No one is born with an inherent sense of wanting to be a lawyer, they may grow up with a sense of integrity, a desire to right wrongs, see justice served, be argumentative or just make a lot of money; but none of these are unique to law per se, they are just the kind of obvious connections that would leap out to someone not trained in careers counselling.

The only way to truly know whether a career, any career, is right for your student, is to get them into that environment, kick the tyres, look under the bonnet and ask questions.

Only then can they really appreciate what it entails, and only then can or should they make an informed choice about their future.

To follow the law example through, it may be they have chosen wisely, but by getting experience in that environment it helps better shape and define which specific area they may want to study, whether to become a barrister, practice corporate law for a large PLC, join a country practice doing conveyancing or working in commercial management and so on.

By walking a mile in their legal moccasins they are able to truly examine which elements are most interesting and the choices which are made subsequently better serve a potential future.

It stands to reason that if a student goes to the place where the thing they think they want to do is done they will get more out of it than abstract research – everyone there is a potential source of information, it’s like a hive mind of career goodness.

It’s not keyword dependant, they can just ask questions, ‘How did you get into this?’, ‘What did you study?’ ‘What’s the best part of the job?’ ‘What’s the worst part of the job?’ and so on and so on.

On top of which these are the people that could offer them internships during their studies, offer letters of recommendation in support of a job application, give them their first job, vouch for them with colleagues or contribute to a UCAS personal statement or apprenticeship application.

It will also begin to hone their professional comportment skills, to get used to talking to adults in an adult way in an adult environment, which will be of no end of benefit when it comes to interviewing or selling themselves with articulacy and clarity of thought.

It will add to their ongoing personal portfolio of skills – when it comes to career selection or university application or apprenticeships, there are very fine lines of distinction between them and the next person.

The game is kind of rigged. If they are applying for a certain course, there’s a good chance that the competition will have a very similar set of experiences and grades.

The only thing that makes people stand out are the experiences that are unique to them.

Whatever and whenever they can, they should be adding to their professional portfolio, creating a cogent narrative that shows a long standing interest and passion for the area in which they are looking to work.

That is much more compelling and useful than simply telling someone you want to do something based on nothing more than gut feel.

Work experience is the silver bullet for career and academic success, not just in achieving that critical springboard into the right role or graduate scheme but also at the point of inception ensuring they don’t waste time and money pursuing a career they may come to regret.

Edd Williams is an academic and careers consultant at, and author of Is your School Lying to You? Get the Career you Want. Get the Life you Deserve. For more information visit or follow @TheEddWilliams.

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