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students, their educators and the business world - which way is forward?

how dealing with bad-news diagnoses builds stronger partnerships than cheering good-news prescriptions

Cloud created by:

Bill Law
5 July 2014


Bill Law
the career-learning café

Business-world proposals for curriculum need a long hard look.  Educators can't afford to ignore what seem to be attempts at curriculum capture.  The curriculum is community property - and not for takeover.

It's true that students need to see how they can join the labour-market, but that's not all they need to understand in order to navigate working life.  I find some consensus about that in the proposals.  But there are also blind alleys, and unresolved issues, and some agencies that can't deal with them - or won't.  A prominent careers-work think-tank features in this.  Making useful sense of it all means stepping back - to get wider perspectives on partisan interests and pervasive influences. 

This is addressed to educators.  I say 'educators' because students learn, not just with teachers and lecturers, but with a range of on-line and community-based helpers - including some business people.  That works well when help is based on a credible understanding of what's going on, and what can be done about it.  And the business world has some of that cred - but not all of it.

 In any event, I see little point in looking for heroes to be lauded and villains to be condemned.  Working out what to do means examining causes worth identifying and effects to be dealt with.  This is about escaping capture and building informed, useful and genuine business-education partnerships. 

And, here's the grit, it turns out that partnerships don't so much need 'how-to-do!' prescriptions, they need 'what-went-wrong?' diagnoses. 



finding consensus

A reality everybody must face is successive governments embracing neo-liberal capitalism.  Its claim is that education must support commerce by readying students for working life.  Actually you don't need to be a capitalist to see that the more students know about working life the better.  So there could be the makings of a consensus here.  There's certainly enough going on in contemporary working life to attract the interested attention of educators. 

But there's also this: the declared objectives of dominant business voices are wholly economic.  The Educator and Employers Taskforce has sponsored a well documented programme for employer engagement.  It's designed to increase students' future earning capacities.  Anthony Mann's and Christian Percy's (2013) research for the programme looks for correlations between programme participation and subsequent earnings.  It's an economics-driven move on curriculum.  And capture would limit the curriculum's ability to probe the range of work-life performance, well-being and fulfilment.  And how far any of these are found in working life - or not found.    

Declarations for new programmes usually rest on a claims that the future can improve on the past.  And there is a past.  Most schools and colleges have set up some combination of work-related learning activities.  They include work experience, work-place visits, enterprise activities, conversations with visitors, mentoring, cv and interview workshops, classroom discussions, careers fairs and face-to-face help.  Students also learn from the recounting of acquaintances' work-life experience as well as in part-time and voluntary work.  Some students are also carers.  Informal learning gathered from their own people, and in their own neighbourhoods, can be more compelling than formal programmes.  A good educator can enable students learn from that mix.  And make useful sense of it - whether for approach or avoidance.

There's evidence that students do not generally find formal programmes useful (YouGov, 2008).  And reported experiences of and reactions to careers work are variable.  Anecdotal evidence is easy to dismiss, but much of it accords with careers work's struggle to deal with massive change with minimal resources (Bill Law, 2013).  It has seemed safer to try to repair, refurbish and re-assert what careers work once did.  The trouble for careers work is that twentieth-century answers do not cope well with twenty-first century questions.  

This may be why the Mann-Percy proposals outflank conventional careers work, by calling for 'mainstream educational experiences'.  But their readiness to work with curriculum-wide possibilities need to be negotiable.  Attempts at capture will lead nowhere - there's no shortcut to consensus. 



avoiding blind alleys

Programme correlations do not necessarily point to programme effects; intervening variables distort the numbers. For example, some reports come from students predisposed to agree, or disagree; there are some who readily adapt to dominant voices, or don't.  Now agreeableness, argumentativeness, adaptability and bloody-mindedness are not necessarily good news, or bad.  But, one way or another, they can each account for how much a person earns.  Mann and Percy find other statistical distortions: wealth, ambition, gender, ethnicity and location can each account for high earnings, whatever careers-work activities a person might have engaged in.  It's selective state schooling which turns out to be the most prevalent predictor of high earnings.  For Mann's and Percy's purposes these are all blind alleys.

The Mann and Percy research is based on data, recording effects which can be counted or measured and then used to justify action.  After taking account of possible blind alleys, their data were gathered from 169 individuals, aged between 19 and 24.  They were asked:

  1.       how frequently they have taken part in any of the listed careers-work activities
  2.       how much they now earn
  3.       how useful to their future career plans they find the careers-work experiences

The data appear to show that every time an activity puts a student into contact with an employer that student's earning potential is increased by £900.  The programme justification is 'learn more get more'.  The learning is said to be like 'a penny dropping'.  We'll come back to that.

For the moment it's worth setting the programme in a wider frame, and then asking the researchers...

  •     are new jobs created for promising students?
  •     do other students earn less because participating students earn more?
  •     can other institutions join the scheme in order to level the field?
  •     is the research able to detect any hard-to-quantify features of these gains?
  •     can it tell if it works by actual talent or by symbolic qualification?
  •     any ideas about questions that this research cannot answer?

Actually Mann and Percy do have such ideas - more about that later.  But they entirely overlook the widely-discussed talent-or-qualification issue.  It is far from clear whether people are favoured for what they've learned, or for what their qualification signals.  Neo-liberal policy favours signals.  So there's a question for Mann and Percy - are they really cranking-up wages, or just making selection easier in a market-place?  Or, maybe, neither of these? - we'll see.

People of 19-24 have seen enough work-life to have noticed all of these causes and effects.  It's true, finding out what they know would need more expensive research.  But its questions are worth posing, because there are critical zero-sum issues here.  One person's plus can be another's minus - the one career displacing the another, but adding nothing to the economy.  And when all institutions join the scheme to give their students a fair shot, all advantage is neutralised - and adds nothing.  If this is so the programme is either unfair or pointless.  Another blind alley?

Right now student and teacher feedback is positive.  But gratitude for gifts is not the same as learning for life.  Standing back for a wider perspective shows the programme to be surrounded by complexities, blind spots and distortions.  What they need is more conversation not more counting.  And partnership works on agreement about what questions are worth asking.



reaching turning points

Mann and Percy themselves pose the question.  And there's a shift of focus in their answers - from the individual to the collective.  The idea of social capital figures prominently. 

It's the past that gets questioned.  During the 1990s the Confederation for British Industry (CBI) published a series of good-looking-and-gratis booklets arguing that the interests of students, employers and nation are as one.  In a decade of cheers for business all we had to do is wait for its trickled-down success.  A lot of people are still waiting.

The CBI series kicked off with a call for 'a stronger partnership between business and education', it confidently looked for 'a skills revolution', in a 'skills decade' it bravely set out 'an employer's view of careers education and guidance', it mapped 'routes to success' documented by a 'skills passport', looking beyond careers work it set out priorities for 'the future curriculum', and it put the term 'employability' on everybody's lips.  That zeitgeist was strong enough that the Royal Society of Arts (RSA) could be persuaded that careers education and guidance can deliver economic benefits to the nation (Chistopher Ball, 1993).  It was all hard to ignore.  I tried, and that was a mistake.

The National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling was a player then, and still is - a NICEC seminar is never a waste of time.  Following its 1975 foundation it earned a reputation for reliable research-and-development leading to new thinking.  Ideas were trialled and revised in conversations with practitioners at several bases throughout the UK.  This was a pre-internet careers-worker network.  It might have been expected to argue that careers work changes things, but it also argued that careers work itself needed to change.  Much of its material was diagnostic for improvement.  Prescriptions outlining careers-work achievements were more popular.  Ready-made prescriptive messages also go down well with politicians seeking closure, speed and action. 

But politicians need evidence; and they contract r&d outfits like NICEC, as well as think-tanks, consultancies and NGOs.  These contracts are prestigious, and winning them can mean framing-and-shaping reports to be as welcome as possible to politicians.  In the worst cases the evidence does not shape the conclusions, the conclusions shape the evidence.  The risk is real, and monitored by a transparency-monitoring organisation.

NICEC has, over time, redefined itself as a policy-research institute.  An effect is an understandable tendency to underline the value of careers-work - its usefulness, its expertise, its impartiality and its economic significance.  None of these claims have been convincingly substantiated.  Though, to be fair, there are correlations between careers-work activity and student employability (Anthony Richard Taylor and Tristram Hooley, 2014).  These correlations get as close as any to validating careers-work expertise.  But, as the task-force enquiry has illustrated, data-based correlations overlook social complexities.  Taylor and Hooley are right to advise caution in interpreting their data. 

These complexities become more visible when we stand back in order to look wider.  It reveals a zeitgeist celebrating the individual in pursuit of the economic.  That cuture visualised a free-standing person cultivating personal qualities which can be linked to work opportunities.  This is fit-and-match career management, simple because its conducted in a social vacuum.  It's supporters can still be heard to declare 'it's as simple as that!'.  As most of the sources cited here confirm, it never is.



comfortably prescribing and uncomfortably diagnosing

Mann and Percy have stepped back far enough to see what went wrong with the CBI campaign.  They diagnose a lack of a social theory.  The theory calls on the idea of social capital - published in Bowling Alone (Robert Putnam, 2000).  Social capital is a currency gathered in social encounters, not in trousered cash.  It is the social contacts a person makes.  More contacts brings more social capital, yielding more options for action.  Less brings less.  Robert Putnam sees social capital as a carrier of national economic recovery. 

The explanation may still be in economics, but it's no longer individual.  Mann and Percy find that the past failure to recognise social realities explains the failure of CBI's pursuit of employability.  They also see the task force's present pursuit of individual earning-potential as risking failure.  The key factor is social engagement.  And the findings are not prescriptive of what goes right, they are diagnostic of what goes wrong.

Hearing somebody say what went wrong feels bad, listening to what can be done feels better.  So what feel-good thing can we do? - better quality standards? - some 'how-to-do' guidelines? - more force from the task-force?  - All of these? - Other?  How would anybody know?  Diagnosis doesn't find that-went-wrong-so-let's-do-this solutons, it is useful in another way, it locates the problem.  And that calls for better than knee-jerk responses.

During the decades following that early-days CBI optimism, but before Mann-and-Percy provoked a rethink, we had SureStart.  In its time it provided widely-available and locally-rooted places of accessible help for young families bringing up their children.  Each was open to the two-way links which, at their best, educators make with their communities.  Looking out for other people's children needs a network.

It also needs some serious thinking.  And SureStart thinking was at least as much diagnostic as prescriptive.  It invited community workers and educators to find how locally-useful reform can be realised.  Principles were set out in a government publication Every Child Matters (DfES, 2004).  It proved to be the first in a series on what hinders children's learning and thriving.  It stood back enough to track causes and effects in global economic forces, the technologies they engage, and the cultural changes that brings.  It particularly tracks the causes of damage, loss and unfairness.  And it seeks more than economic effects - as much concerned for personal-and-social fulfilment and well-being.

The argument was linked to the Connexions programme, also set up by government.  It still is a national network relying on the inventiveness of locally-rooted providers of career-management help.  Help is offered in the context of each student's family and community experience.  This socially-situated perspective means that what is happening in the career management can be understood as part of what is happening in the life.  Most resources are to be dedicated to those most in need of help.

SureStart anticipated Mann's and Percy's thinking: the diagnosis of conventional careers work's failure is that it lacked scope.  It was not in enough of a position to deliver fit-and-match career development.  It was in no position at all to deal with global trends, or unlock national wealth.  But, most of all, it was out-of-tune with the changing way social-and-cultural dynamics figured in student's lives.  Careers work needed to change.   

Students - learning to map change, to make sense of it, and to navigate it - need the space and progression afforded by curriculum.  The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA, 2004) proposed such a forward-looking reform of curriculum.  It found plenty going wrong: education is too fragmented, the burden of assessment too great, and staying-on rates too low.  Too little is done to support well-being or to evoke a love of learning  The QCA called for blue-sky thinking on the issues.  Part of that thinking was published as a case for Life-role Relevance in Curriculum - LiRRiC (Bill Law, 2006).  It came up with principles, for... 

  • relating formal learning to the local-and-social world in which students informally learn for themselves
  • with enough space and time to engage students in making their own sense of that experience and its complexity
  • linking academic learning to students' present and future life-roles to signal its learning-for-living usefulness
  • embedding academic learning in a subject-with-subject coherence which makes it both memorable and motivating
  • making learning transferable by reminding students of their lives so that their lives remind them of their learning 

Not every academic teacher would be up for this, but not all would be needed.  It's enough that every education outfit has enough people who can win trust, fire-up interest and have enough command of their subjects.  Learning for living needs to attract the interested attention of the best educators.

The record (Bill Law, 2013) suggests that the careers-work leadership response to Every Child Matters reform was conditional.  The fast-developing technologies were seen as opportunities to disseminate existing material.  What was thought to matter to every child was what careers work was already doing.  There were fears of a dilution of careers-work expertise.  

In any event, the reforms were overtaken by a different politics, giving careers workers more to worry about - and, I don't know, some reappraisal of how every child matters.



questioning proposals

The employers' task-force proposals promise a 'fully facilitated' programme, with business 'at the centre'.  They are aimed at having students 'work-place ready', and with an 'appetite for working-life'.  This is not an isolated initiative, there are wider resonances.  Securing our future talent is an on-line argument for linking business to careers work.  Commercial logos and endorsements lay the ground for 'good practice'.  Similar claims are made in a business-led prediction of where careers work is going.  And what about changing careers? a career-coaching site cheerfully urging job seekers to fit-and-match to an unproblematic labour market.  Wider afield, there are reports of celebrities helping to finance business-friendly agendas for education.  And then there is a politico lining up a commercialised education for mending a fractured economy.  Now, what could be wrong with any of that?  Careers-work leaders think little, a fair few have signed up in the endorsements.

It's not surprising to find businesses externalising labour costs.  Shareholders want as much as possible off their balance sheets.  So it's worth noticing how carefully the proposals are managed.  They feature more prominent celebrities than informed academics.  The business-lists omit G4S, Serco, Capita, Atos, Wonga, News International and any other outfits that mislead, defraud and exploit for as long as they can get away with it.  There are no investment-bank logos.  

A careers-work leader might welcome the flattering attention.  An educator might wonder whether the popular, plausible and rich are able to camouflage, entice and capture.  If so, they might also wonder what they and their students can do about it.  

There's lot for students to wonder about: by probing inside tracks to high-status jobs, by interrogating employment and remuneration conditions, by researching the consequences of unlimited growth, by questioning how private commerce relies on public investment, by digging into the polarisation of salaries and tax avoidance, by examining the transfer of global capital, by probing the commercial canvassing of power.  I don't know how much of what they find would be counted as 'labour-market information' in conventional careers work.  But that's what it is.

Students need to talk directly with working people at all levels in a working life.  They need to know what's happening to the small firms where most people look to get started.  They may be allowed to know about wars and royals in history, but not the work-life of their families (Geoff Bright, 2013).  They need to understand why there is decay in some local neighbourhoods and exclusion in others. 

It's easy to wind people up with free 'information, inspiration and advice' - but is it education?  Or is education what faces evidence, outlines argument, invites questions, acknowledges doubts, recognises points-of-view and sees alternatives?  Because that is where nothing is ready-made, and nothing is inevitable. 

There's no way back.  Contemporary social attitudes are formed by different memories, attributing different meanings, stirred up by different politics.  The conventional wisdom is that promotions have upbeat prescriptions of good-news possibilities.  But the reality is that our students are in safer hands with educators who can enable diagnostic questioning of 'what went wrong?'  Failure is endemic to the human condition.  We will all fail again, but we can all learn to fail better



working with educators

The human condition being what it is, the more we find out the more we realise how little we know.  There's a lot more to know about how social capital is acquired and how students can use it.  So what can educators make of these social causes and effects?...

  • learning is not just what students find out it's how collectively they make sense of it
  • educators need better to understand why students do what they do about learning
  • we all learn best from surprising and disturbing processes
  • career management is usefully understood not as a routine to follow but as a story to relate
  • in a changing world there's no way back but there are new ways forward

finding out and making sense:  In education ideas about prescribed-knowledge and diagnosed-failure belong to a long-standing distinction between content and process.  Educators and employers may grab centre-stage on the content, but when it comes to making sense of it educators have no more than bit-parts.  Tick-box evaluations don't detect this.  Some educators, including some from business, never know what's going on.  Not knowing what students are making of learning is a catastrophic deficit.

Alert educators understand how those hidden complexities, undisclosed confusions and private conflicts are part of learning.  But how does social capital come into that?  The idea of cultural capital gets closer.  The keep-it-simple brigade won't like this, but 'social' and 'cultural' are not the same thing. 

who students are and what they do:  Words are important; and what we now know has needed that other term, cultural capital, much used by sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (1991).  His research crops up a lot in career-management thinking.  It focuses on how dispositions are acquired from upbringing, and how attitudes are differently cultivated in different communities.  Each community forms the culture which collectively makes sense to its inhabitants.  And that sense is reflected in habits-of-mind expressed as beliefs, values and expectations.  Pierre Bourdieu speaks of ‘habitus’ simultaneously referring to the inhabited-collective and the habits-of-mind it cultivates.  It is both a shared identity and a group's way of seeing - the who-we-are which explains why we do what-we-do.  Educators frequently bump into cultivated collectivities.  And they are missing too much if they miss its range - from inner-city have-nots to cosmopolitan have-yachts.

There are tough questions here - less about how much capital to onload, more about how much habitus to disturb.  It asks how much of what students bring in is it good for them to carry away?  Working on the answer is where hidden complexities, undisclosed confusions and private conflicts become visible.

The process evokes a real-time real-place remembering of promises made, models admired and possibilities recognised - and all in people encountered in the group - and, with a more chance of surprise, outside.  Career management is negotiated with, for and in response to other people.  Those social facts call up thoughts-and-feelings ranging from loyalty to suspicion.  And that needs to be resolved by how much to hold-onto and how much to let-go (Bill Law, 2009).

There's no know-more-get-more formula here.  Pierre Bourdieu makes much of the way people talk.  Actually, in curriculum that conversation is more likely to be soliloquy.  But, whether in disclosure or inner-life, there are no ready-made outcomes.  This is is disturbing.  But if education is not going to disturb anything why would anyone bother?

troublesome surprises:  There's education-research evidence for the value of disturbing learning (podcast).  A surprising experience releases more learning potential than a routine one (Annette Karmilloff, 1992).  The findings are documented as unexpected learning.  From infancy, more sustained learning has avoided fixed patterns, predictable movements and bemusing scenarios.  Rather, it comes from being troubled, getting surprised and tracking change.  We like the safe, the assured and the comforting, but they don't do much for learning.

Between them Pierre Bourdieu and Annette Karmilloff characterise learning as a shared and disturbing process in which students make sense of causes, and get a grip on effects.  This is good news.  Fit-and-match self-marketing works well for the plausible by deceiving the credulous.  Troubling-and-disturbing nuisances are more likely creatively to expand business possibilities.  They also lift education out of keep-'em-quiet child minding, don't-bother-me-routine, and jobs-worth compliance.  It is altogether more interesting, possibly enough that fewer able teachers will quit their jobs.

career-management narratives:  Information about experience, habits, points-of-view, surprises and change-of-mind can readily be recounted as narrative.  And there's a lot of interest in how to do that.  Some want homilies - tales with ready-made meanings.  But the educational uses of narrative draw on rounded stories which provoke who-what-where-when-how-why questioning.  They do not so much whizz people along, as draw people in.  That causes a person to wonder about more-than-one possible outcome.  Career management could do with some more surprising closing scenes.

And any curriculum is packed with such narratives.  A study of their educative use (Bill Law, 2012) shows how a rounded story does not impose meaning but invites response.  Meaning comes not from the author's prescription but from the student's diagnosis.  Career management becomes an open-ended story. 

This is where Mann's and Percy's penny drops.  Narrative thinking calls it 'turning point'.  And that moment of insight belongs to a longer, and sometimes troublesome, will-I-won't-I story.  Much of what's important in learning about work is important because change is fraught.  It needs educators who can work with students on questioning those hidden complexiities, undisclosed confusions and private conflicts - becoming ready for navigating change.  And it's that process that unsticks the penny. 

Using narrative in education is no narrowly-framed process, eliciting rushed answers, with no time to explore.  Its processes enable students to take command of their own lives.  That quest was never more demanding.

new ways forward:  There's an account of what the quest demands in education for change.  It's a long list: resisting impulse, strengthening resilience, developing concentration, feeling pleasure, becoming mindful, being optimistic, maintaining relationships and finding meaning - all get a mention.  The outcomes are variously claimed to win competitiveness, to support well-being, to bring fulfilment and to permit flourishing. 

Interest in the list is growing.  A recent source claims this search for underlying causes to be unprecedented in education.  But that claim overlooks the decades-earlier examination of the many ways in which we can take care of how every child matters.

An attempt to reflect the breadth of thinking uses the imagery of buoyancy (Bill Law, 2014).  It lists what is needed to stay afloat, as a precondition for navigating the surge.  It also lists what is less frequently mentioned by others - critical thinking.  Critical thinking is what students do to retain informed control of their own lives.  It is how they question, interrogate and scrutinise - separating the credible from the merely plausible.

It's prominent in the LiRRiC proposals.  Examples of how it can work are set out in career-learning thinking (Bill Law, 2010).  It calls on what the best of educators do best.  It enables students for engaging with the 'honesty, authenticity and modesty' which business partners claim.  There are here the makings of a three-way partnership - giving voice to students and their families, educators and their managers, and business partners and their shareholders.  They are all stakeholders in any partnership.  (But let's not go into why some interests are wary of critical thinking which is capable of asking awkward questions.) 

Critical questioning does not assume that commercial conduct is self-interested, only that some might be.  Not that careers-work leadership is blind, only that it miscalculated risk.  Not that all educators are ready or willing, only that enough are.  Not that selection is corrupt, only that curriculum can be reduced to a selection process.  Not that all fit-and-match thinking is pointless, only that it is not the whole point.  

Partnership needs no heroes or villains, it needs a grasp of the causes and effects which can inform shared action.  And so the conversation begins; and the essence of conversation is that change-of-mind is possible.  There's no last word on education.

Though there's plenty of room here for your next word - sign up or log in below...



Christopher Ball (2003).  Guidance Matters - Developing a National Strategy for Guidance in Learning and Work.  London, RSA

Pierre Bourdieu (1992)Language and Symbolic Power.  Cambridge UK:  Polity Press

Bright, Geoff (2013).  Attuning to Spatialities of Affect: Some Implications for Educational Ethnography.  Manchester: Manchester Metropolitan University. Bright.pdf

DfES (2004)Every Child Matters.  London: Department for Education and Skills

Annette Karmilloff (1992).  Beyond Modularity.  Massachusettss: MIT Press:

Bill Law (2006).  LiRRiC - The Way Forward?

Bill Law (2009).  Community Interaction and its Importance to Contemporary Careers Work.

Bill Law (2010)Career-learning Thinking for Contemporary Working Life.

Bill Law (2012). The Uses of Narrative.

Bill Law (2013).  The Future Careers Work - Distinct or Extinct.

Bill Law (2014).  Which Way is Forward - Change, Politics and Education.

Anthony Man & Christian Percy (2013).  'Employer engagement in British secondary education - wage earning outcomes experienced by young adults'. Journal of Education and Work

Robert Putnam (2000)Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.  New York: Simon and Shuster

Antony Richard Taylor and Tristram Hooley (2014).  'Evaluating the impact of career management skills module and internship programme within a university business school'.  British Journal of Guidance & Counselling

QCA (2004).  Curriculum and Qualifications Reform.  London: Department for Education and Skills

YouGov.  2008Edge Annual Programme of Stakeholder Research Report.  London: Edge Foundation


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