While the Assembly’s Employment and Learning Committee has only completed one inquiry since the last election, it has caught students’ attention with over 8,000 of them putting forward their views. Its report on careers education, information, advice and guidance (CEIAG) was published last October and sets out ways to reform this service in schools, colleges and universities.
The inquiry was proposed by Alliance MLA Chris Lyttle after feedback from young people and businesses suggested that the current standard of careers advice was poor. The committee had itself questioned why the education system was producing a large number of young people with low skills despite businesses warning of skills shortages.
Forty-one organisations provided written submissions and 28 provided oral evidence. A survey of year 12 pupils, college students, university students and young people not in education, employment or training (NEETs) resulted in 8,428 responses across all four target groups.
“Through my interaction with young people and businesses,” Chris Lyttle said, “it became evident that whilst some schools are providing robust careers advice, and that some improvements have been made, careers guidance generally remains unacceptably inconsistent.”
When the report was published, committee Chair Robin Swann affirmed: “As well as playing a major role in helping our young people to fulfil their potential, careers advice and education are vital to the economic future of Northern Ireland. Careers education will therefore remain a priority for the committee in the time ahead.”
The inquiry report found “much to praise” with individual teachers and advisors working tirelessly. That said, five clear criticisms stood out:
• systemic and specific examples of poor provision;
• inconsistency across Northern Ireland;
• a lack of information or the available information being “difficult to digest”;
• suggestions that schools and colleges do not present the full range of options; and
• a lack of joined-up thinking.
The report contained twenty-five recommendations. The Department for Employment and Learning and the Department of Education needed to ensure consistency and high standards. This could mean developing and monitoring guidance or a statutory duty on institutions to deliver impartial and independent advice.
Careers, it said, should become a compulsory subject and prioritised at an earlier stage. Teaching children about careers in years 8, 9 and 10 would raise their aspirations before they started their GCSEs.
The Department of Education, it said, should also gather together examples of good practice which should be used in all schools, colleges and universities. The Careers Service, the committee emphasised, had an important role in “signposting” the economically inactive into training, education and ultimately employment.
DEL should also develop an “integrated network of support” to help people with learning difficulties to get into work, whether through grants for employers or mentoring. Similarly, the two departments needed to develop a strategy to identify and overcome the barriers that held girls back from taking up STEM-based careers.
The Assembly and the wider public also needed to see “outcome measures” which indicated whether the education system was really responding to the economy’s needs.
Throughout the report, the committee called on the department to investigate best practice in other jurisdictions. Careers, for example, is already a compulsory subject in Finland which is recognised as one of the world’s most successful small economies.
An inclusive and fit-for-purpose careers website was also proposed, following the example of www.myworldofwork.co.uk in Scotland or www.careersportal.ie in the Republic. Information for parents was also important and a parents’ portal could be provided at www.nidirect.gov.uk/careers
At the moment, not all post-primary schools provide work experience for their pupils. This should be rolled out in all schools and they need to have a consistent approach to “promoting, organising and quality assuring” work placements for students. Schools also needed to have more input from businesses in their careers work.
There was a real sense of urgency when the committee called on DEL to work “with haste” to develop and introduce more CEIAG qualifications in Northern Ireland. This, alongside with more emphasis on CEIAG from the Department of Education, would increase the number of experienced and qualified careers staff.
In general, teachers also needed to receive specific continuous professional development to ensure that they were aware of “realistic opportunities” for students in their subject area. Again, closer co-operation with business would help to improve this aspect of their work.
Employment and Learning Minister Stephen Farry has confirmed that the two departments will carry out a detailed review of careers education this year, which will draw on the report’s proposals.
Most of the committee’s other work has been taken up with scrutinising the department’s budget and meetings with businesses, colleges and universities. The committee has also had the chance to highlight Belfast man Steve Myers’ role as Director of Accelerators and Technology at the CERN nuclear physics research centre in Geneva.
Myers gave evidence to the committee in November 2012 and then invited members to visit the centre on 4-7 March 2013. During that time, they were briefed on CERN’s educational work, its training and recruitment opportunities, and its private sector partners.
Members in brief
Basil McCrea, the Chair since May 2011, stepped down last February after leaving the UUP. The Ulster Unionists chose Robin Swann as his successor. Thomas Buchanan (DUP) is Swann’s deputy.
Swann and Buchanan are also the party spokesmen for their respective parties. The other spokespeople are Bronwyn McGahan (Sinn Féin), Pat Ramsey (SDLP) and Chris Lyttle (Alliance). The other members are David Hilditch, Sammy Douglas and Alastair Ross (DUP), Fra McCann and Phil Flanagan (Sinn Féin) and the independent unionist David McClarty.
In terms of careers, four have mainly worked in politics (Lyttle, McCann, McGahan and Ross), two in retail (Flanagan and Hilditch), two in community work (Douglas and Ramsey), and one each in insurance (McClarty), testing and diagnostics (Swann) and construction (Buchanan).