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“Closing the Gap” Research – What have we learned?

By Chris Percy

We know more about careers activities in our schools than we ever have.

This knowledge comes at an important time – the government’s Careers Strategy sets strong new ambitions for careers activities in schools, with employers invited in on a large scale to help shape their future workforce. 

The Closing the Gap report quantifies the ambitions set out in the Careers Strategy for employer activity, contrasting it with the current levels of activity in English secondary schools. It then sets out key principles for closing the gap between the two.

What’s the ambition?

The ambition is to deliver the Gatsby Benchmarks by the end of 2020, which includes at least nine employer activities per young person - one employer encounter in each year of secondary education and a further two experiences of the workplace. With around 500,000 to 600,000 young people in each year of secondary education across England, this translates into about 4 million employer encounters each year and about 1 million workplace experiences.

The challenge is less in the total number, and more in The Gatsby Charitable Foundation’s vision of universal provision and in the principle of spreading the activity across a number of years. Doing it all at once doesn’t count. The idea is that developing and exploring thoughtful career aspirations is best done over several years and alongside the process of choosing which subjects to study at each level.

Where are we today?

School surveys, collected over 2016 and 2017, show that about two thirds of those minimum nine activities are taking place already. Some young people, at least in some years, get more activity than that minimum benchmark – but that doesn’t help us with universal provision. In fact, roughly three quarters of young people miss out on at least one encounter at some point in secondary school.

Challenges in closing the gap

The data reveals two challenges for closing the gap: the volume gap and the problem of patchiness.

The volume gap shows that we need another 1.7 million employer interactions each year – provided we can target those activities to the exact areas they are currently falling short.

The problem of patchiness is that it isn’t straightforward to do that targeting. While there are some general trends in the data, the gaps can be found in all regions and there are gaps in at least some year groups in most schools.

What to do about the “volume gap”

A question we often get asked is how much do employers need to do? One way of thinking about this is the minimum that would be needed, if all employers contributed equally.

There are about 27 million economically active people in employment in England, distributed across an enormous range of activity, from sole traders through to large corporates. If we all got involved equally, then each organisation could do one employer encounter per year for every seven employees and bring in one student for a workplace experience for every 25 employees.

We’re a long way off everyone being involved today, but there are sizeable groups of employers volunteering in all parts of the country. The 2016 Employer Perspectives Survey of some 18,000 UK employers suggests about 10% currently offer work inspiration activities to local schools. One approach is for those who are involved today to encourage their peers, customers, suppliers and partners to get started.

New employers might start with something small like a careers talk or giving feedback on CVs – perhaps existing employers can introduce them to their school contacts or their activity organisers, to help make that first step as simple as possible. If every organisation currently involved were able to persuade just one other to give it a try, at some point over the coming academic year, we would make enormous progress.

What to do about the ’problem of patchiness’

The underlying problem is easy to describe. Looking at the geography, young people are distributed fairly evenly in line with the overall population. Employer capacity and the ability to broker activities is not. This matters because many employer activities are delivered face-to-face, but it’s typically unreasonable to expect much more than one to two hours of travel time.

One principle that can help this problem is a mindset for microtargeting. Local enterprise coordinators now cover most of the secondary schools in England and know where the gaps are. They are a great resource to draw on if employers want to reach less well-served areas, which is likely to make sense from the point of view of enlightened self-interest (easier for messages and experiences to stand out) as well supporting social mobility and the vision of the Careers Strategy. Microtargeting can take us a long way, but we’re also likely to need new creatively-designed, technology-enabled solutions for conveying first-hand experiences from a distance.

The kind of society imagined by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation is one where we all get involved. A society where all young people leave school with a rounded understanding of their options and the world of work. A society where it is commonplace for adults to help young people access information and experiences first-hand. And it’s a society we’re proud to be working towards.

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