Exploring the role of secondary teachers in building students career skills and knowledge

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On the 4th October 2023 Suzanne Rice and I convened an expert round table to discuss the role of secondary teachers in building students career skills and knowledge. The round table built on a research project which we had been undertaking for the previous six months, which explored the same issues. The purpose of the round table was to present our research and thinking and to receive feedback from an expert group.

About the research

Suzanne and I have been conducting a Delphi study to explore secondary teacher’s roles in careers education. A Delphi study is essentially about harnessing expert opinion and articulating the consensus that exists around a particular issue.

We have noted that the existing literature on careers education in schools emphasises the importance of embedding career learning in the school and in the wider curriculum. This creates an important role for all secondary teachers in the in the delivery of career learning, but this role has generally been ignored and weakly theorised.

Through a Delphi process with 64 international experts we have explored the role of secondary teachers and sought to establish what consensus exists on these issues.

While, this is not the place to present our results in detail, a brief summary would be that there is consensus that all teachers should have a role in developing students’ career knowledge and skills. This is particularly important because careers content needs to be integrated into the curriculum and subject teachers are best placed to make links between their curriculum and careers. In order to achieve this, schools need to commit to a whole school approach to careers and teachers need both to be trained to support them in this role, and to understand the importance of this role and its implications for young people’ lives.

You can see more information about the project in the presentation that we gave at the round table.

Perspectives at the round table

We were very lucky to be joined at the round table by some of England’s biggest experts on careers education in schools including David Andrews, Emily Tanner (Nuffield), Ghazal Vahidi (iCeGS), Hannah Blake (iCeGS), John Ambrose (Complete Careers), John Morrison (Aquinas College), Kelly Guthery (Outcomes First Group), Michael Britland (Teach First), Nicola Farrow (Teach First), Nicola Hall (The Careers & Enterprise Company), Ryan Gibson (Gatsby Foundation), Siobhan Neary (iCeGS), Tom Staunton (iCeGS). What follows is a brief summary of some of the main points that they made. The points made by a variety of participants in the round table have been synthesised.

Teacher role and identity. If we are going to make substantial progress in embedding careers education into the curriculum we need to think more about teachers identities, at present most teachers do not perceive that they have a role in relation to careers and would be hostile to taking on a formal role as any kind of guidance counsellor or careers specialist. Given this it is necessary to reposition these responsibilities in some other way and to recognise the existing forms of career support that teachers already give. This require careful thought because we are in the middle of a teacher recruitment and retention crisis. At its best engagement with careers could help to motivate teachers and help them to make a difference, but at its worst it runs the risk of piling more pressure onto teacher workloads and make them more difficult. On one level these issues of what a teachers role is are quite philosophical, but in other ways they connect directly to things like role descriptions, promotion criteria and so on, and these aspects of a teachers own career development also need to be considered as we seek to develop teachers’ roles.

Teachers’ pastoral role. In addition to their role as subject teachers, teachers also have important pastoral roles. In some cases these are formalised into tutorial responsibilities, but there are also a range of important pastoral activities that take place around teaching of subject, particularly for students who are interested in those subjects. These pastoral roles are generally poorly theorised, and teachers are given little time or recognition for them, however, developing this role has to be an important part of thinking about how teachers role in careers can be improved.

Developing and adapting curriculum. If teachers are going to be successfully embed career guidance materials within their teaching they need to have strong pedagogic skills, including the ability to develop and adapt curriculum in ways that incorporates relevant careers content without disrupting or distracting from subject curricula.

Referral and partnership. Classroom teachers have a distinct role from careers professionals (including careers leaders). While it is important to develop this role, it needs to be underpinned by a professional specialist within the school. Teachers need to know the limits of their knowledge, role and capacity and be able to both refer students to careers professionals and draw on careers professionals for their help and expertise. They also need to know how to refer effectively, what information should be passed on, what should be kept confidential and so on. Ensuring that this kind of inter-professional work can take place effectively probably requires the development of strong school policies and processes as well as systems to manage information flow. 

Teacher’s engagement with parents. The importance of involving teachers in careers goes beyond the direct role that they play with young people. Teachers are also key contact points for parents. In many cases parents are likely to want to speak to teachers about their child’s educational pathways and future employment. This is an important site for intervention and so one that teachers need to be prepared for.

Initial training and continuing professional development (CPD). In order for teachers to play this kind of role, it is important for them to be trained differently. This has implications for both initial teacher education (which should cover careers) and CPD which needs to provide opportunities for teachers to explore this role and develop their capacity to fulfil it effectively. One idea would be to focus CPD in this area during the early years after a teacher qualifies. This recognises the packed nature of the initial teacher education curriculum, but also the importance of dealing with this early in the development of the teachers careers. Regardless of the approach that is taken there was agreement that at present, careers is relatively rarely addressed in initial teacher education and there is a dearth of good CPD in this area. It is also important to think about what form teacher CPD might take, it may not be about courses and qualifications, but instead take the form of things like teacher externships or communities of practice.

Major or minor reforms? One of the questions that was debated in this roundtable was whether what was needed was a series of important, but relatively minor, tweaks to initial teacher education and the regulation of schools to emphasise careers more substantially, or whether what was needed was a more radical shift which would have implications not just for careers but for the whole curriculum, qualification system and wider educational systems.

Specialist roles. While most of the round table was focus on the roles of all teachers, there was also an acknowledgement that there might be some teachers who wanted to get more involved in careers and take on more substantial roles. Most of the existing thinking on this has focused on specialist careers teachers, careers leaders or guidance teachers, but participants at the round table emphasised that there was also an important middle ground for teachers who want to engage more deeply with careers, without becoming the school’s specialist. This might include roles like being a subject champion for career or a contact point for a particular sector.

Further research. Participants raised a number of areas where they would like to see further research. These included:

  • How do teachers understand career guidance currently? What do they think that good career guidance looks like.
  • What level of willingness exists within the existing teaching profession to take on new roles in relation to careers? Particularly in the light of challenges around workload and retention. Such an investigation would need to explore the experiences and opinions of a wide range of teachers (not just new trainees). Key to this kind of research would be thinking about what could support teachers to be more positive about taking on new roles i.e. whether further resourcing would help, and if so, what kind of resourcing.
  • What evidence is there of good practice? Are there schools in which all teachers are routinely engaged with careers? If so, what values, practices and structures underpin this?

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