Career education needs an overhaul

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Career education is the spotlight, being subject of a review by the Victorian Government and also part of David Gonski’s broader federal review of education. Driving both of these reviews is the need to ensure we are preparing students to make valuable contributions to society, and in the process to have the opportunity to enjoy fulfilling careers that engage their minds and utilise their potential.

This education in particular is ripe for an overhaul. It has for too long been the bridesmaid and never the bride in schools and the curriculum. When people think of careers it is easy to equate it in their minds with jobs, and so careers education is a kind of in-house job centre. Such old-school thinking leads to careers education being put off until key transition points and subject selection time. In other words we don’t need to bother with it until students are about 15 years old or more. Then it is simply a one off process of asking the student what interests them, and producing a list of occupations and training courses that meet their expressed desires.

That model of career education has always been too little too late. It also has little to do with careers education and a lot to do with a superficial accountancy exercise to demonstrate that each student has had some careers advice.

Good quality vocation education is not and has never been about matching students interests with subjects and occupations. Good career education is about how to make good quality decisions. It is about understanding sources of bias in one’s deliberations and evaluating the quality and reliability of information and received opinions about options in a world of fake news. It is about developing the skills to spot opportunities, build networks, understand the labour market, and developing the skills of adaptability, reinvention, and resilience. It is about a lot more than merely creating a plan through goal setting, but it is also about developing what I have called RAPID-CPR — how to Revise, Abandon, Pause, Implement, Devise, Copy, Promote and Revive a Plan. It is about learning to make decisions and act under conditions of uncertainty, and how to find opportunity and growth in uncertainty.

Career education should be about lifelong learning to maximally utilise our potential and employability throughout life. It is not about making one transition from school to somewhere else. It is certainly not about game-playing the ATAR by picking scaleable subjects or striving to get into high ATAR subjects in the mistaken belief that these are the ‘‘best’’ or most intellectually challenging subjects.

Career mentoring should not start in the final years of school. Enlightened primary schools are now embedding careers education into their curriculums. To object to this on the grounds that youngsters might become anxious if work is mentioned too early, fails to understand that careers education is not simply about ‘‘work’’. It also fails to appreciate that young minds are soaking up ideas about work from an early age anyway and too frequently these ideas are distorted – for instance reinforcing sex-role stereotypes, or limited to only roles found within their families.In high schools we need full-time careers teachers fully backed by principals and staff who are embedding evidence-based careers material into their curriculum areas.

A full-time position is the minimum required if students are to receive the personalised counselling that research shows is the most effective intervention. It is also required to provide the capacity and continuity to allow effective collaborations with employers and industry generally.

Careers teachers need more advanced training to Masters level in order to provide the advanced skills required of the role, and also to have the research skills to evaluate effectively their own practice and to engage in student destination and pathway analysis to refine their services. They also require ongoing high quality professional development delivered by an a careers institute with subject matter experts and industry members, who continue to develop the evidence base that informs career education.