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careers work in civil society

A policy commitment to an all-age careers service will get a lot of favourable attention from our...

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Bill Law
4 June 2010

A policy commitment to an all-age careers service will get a lot of favourable attention from our people.  But there are underlying issues.  One of the most pressing is about how any service is best located in relation to its users.  It calls for designing a service in terms of...

how people become aware of it,
how easy it is to get to,
how it looks-and-feels to its users,

how it attracts the people who most need it,
how it ensures that a good start leads naturally to on-going use,
and how it gets located in people’s natural networks.

These are features of accessibility and credibility.  And most people don’t get any kind feel for them solely on claims to operational expertise or evidence of training.  They want to know about who they are dealing with.  That’s why rates-of-use depend on how the service inhabits its society.  People need to recognise it as belonging to them - linked to their lives.

Most people have links to schools - whether in past-experience or through current family-and-neighbourhood.  A good many of our schools have worked hard to offer a comprehending and welcoming ambience.  And, for a time, it looked as though guidance workers would be based in schools.  But it's hard to see what can happen now.

This blog takes a look at the background dynamics of this situation.  It considers what seems likely in restructuring schools and reforming curriculum.  But, most importantly, it looks for consequences in the ambience of schools.  If, because of these developments, we cannot see how innovative careers work can be located in schools, then we are not going to give up.  We will go elsewhere.  So we now need to stand back, and look around.

The government claims that it’s restructuring of schooling will liberate us all.  But what we know of the US and Swedish experience suggests that such reforms offer freedom only to those in a position to grasp it.  These dynamics will exclude too many who are not in that position, and who do not see things that way.

However, it is not structures but curriculum which will - for good or ill - do most to re-shape life-chances.  Ministers plainly favour a subject-based, content-driven curriculum - dedicated to rising standards.  It accords with the use of curriculum as a means of maximising competitive advancement.  But it’s a narrow basis for working with schools.  Any progressive idea, that curriculum is to enable people in their management of a pressurised life in a changing world, needs more - linking subject-to-subject, school-to-community, and learning-to-life.  The organisations supporting such movement in curriculum are being dismantled.

And what of ambience?  It’s too soon to say what the effects will be of the take-up on new structures and reformed curriculum.  And, so, we can’t yet know what that will do to management style, staff commitment and student engagement. The rhetoric of reform is for a releasing local innovation.  But, as innovators, we are entitled to our doubts.  Can narrowly conceived, cash-strapped and risk-averse schools be drivers of the kind reform which will welcome inventive and inclusive careers work?

Time to step back, and wonder ‘which way is forward?’.  Knowing why any careers-work initiative is ‘a good idea’ has never been that obvious.  And, for more than two decades, the most pressing answers to the question have been tied to policy - its frameworks, its performance indicators and its funding streams.  Careers work has been an enthusiastic player.

At the same time links to commerce have tightened.  Schooling has long been under pressure to supply the qualities needed for ’a job of work’.   But, for most people, work never was a way of matching self to personal fulfillment.  And now less than ever.  A consequence is that we have lost chances to learn how to work with a wider range of culturally-rooted ways of seeing how life, work and self are brought together differently in different localities. 

And, speaking of commercial pressures, education is increasingly seen as a marketable product.  And who knows how far that trend will go?  Or how a school-based careers service would stand in relation to it?

Too many open questions here.  But underlying all of them are the dynamics of who, in the future, will have the stronger pull on schooling - national government or global commerce?  It is certainly too soon to say how changes in structure, curriculum and ambience will manage things.  But we would be foolish to allow ourselves to be nudged into whatever marginal space that resolution assigns us.

So what else is there?  ‘The big society’ is urged where individuals make government smaller - through individual volunteering, and by a responsible citizenry.  But individuals already have roles in government - as voters and constituents.  And in commerce - as shoppers and investors.  The ‘big society’ is a weak answer to a tendentious question.  We may wonder whether its grand-parentage is Lady Bountiful or Reaganomics.

However, that does not mean that we should dispose of the case for strengthening what is much more usefully understood as ‘civil society’.

Civil society is where a person finds life-roles outside of what markets might urge or policy might require.  They are in family and neighborhood attachments, in cultural and working affiliations, in sporting allegiances and leisure pursuits.  We all do it: rich and poor, tough-minded 'maximisers' and easy-going 'sufficers', the 'included' and the 'excluded'.

None of these commitments need call up political or commercial interests.  And we all learn in them all.  Indeed - before the industrial revolution, and after it - civil society was, and is, education’s natural home.  At the extremes it can mean ‘de-schooling society’.  Though, more probably, it means finding too much of schooling too narrowly constrained to be useful for more than front-loading into recruitment and selection.  Whatever we find, the greater the squeeze on natural, informal and recognisable locations for life-relevant learning, the more we should work with them.

The squeeze is intensifying.  The boundaries between commerce, civil society and government have never been secure.  Pincer-pressure from commerce and government is relentless - it’s what they are there to do.  But something else is happening: educationists are occupying and refurnishing a reclaimed civil-social space.  A growing number of voluntary, social-enterprise, and charitable organisations are:

>            vigorously consulting with local government - on which initiatives its neighbourhoods need to be established, protected and extended;
>            firmly voicing resurgent professional concerns for the future of education - to the point of blocking government requirements;
>            authoritatively rescuing proven ideas for useful curriculum reform - in defiance of government rejection;
>            widely coordinating curriculum development - for consortiums with shared programme intentions;
>            creatively setting up community-based programmes of learning, particularly in learning-for-living - moving from personal health to the protection of the environment.

Oh! and:

 >            constructively canvassing innovative ideas for careers-work action - working them into useful and effective programmes for contemporary careers work.

As you can see, this is no rag-bag movement.  All are developing new lines of interactive exchange; opening up new settings for reform; and engaging helpers, learners and stakeholders in new partnerships-for-learning.  All can work with schools and colleges - or without them.

Neither is this an escape into nostalgia - there is no way back.  And - anyway - it is impossible to see how the fast-moving and adaptive exchanges we now need can be enabled except through the internet.

Progressive advance needs progressive energy.  Where it can be found in schools, good.  Where it can’t, we must look elsewhere.

Bill Law





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