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Social mobility and careers guidance provision

November 2018

Careers guidance is seriously lacking in some areas of the UK with negative impacts on young people, particularly those from lower socio-economic backgrounds

Insufficient careers guidance

The last decade has witnessed an erosion of careers provision in English schools. OFSTED reported in 2013 that ‘arrangements for careers guidance were not working well in just over three quarters of the 60 schools visited’.1

The fragmentation of careers support has implications for students as they move into higher education. Over 40% of first year undergraduates in the AGCAS First-Year Student Career Readiness Survey report were unable to recall receiving any careers support before university.2

Impact on socio-economic groups

This ‘patchy’ career education has a disproportionate influence on students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. From a national survey of year 11 students, researchers concluded that ‘careers provision is not just patchy but patterned – particularly in terms of social inequalities’.

The survey found that ‘wealthier students, who were found to have higher social capital, were nearly one and a half times more likely to receive careers education compared with students with lower social capital, who were significantly more likely to be from poorer families’.3

Another study found that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are already less likely to access formal provision and more likely to seek careers information from informal sources, such as websites.4

The power of early experiences

A study at Edge Hill University showed that students were highly critical of their school experience of Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG). Unfortunately, this tainted their perception of career support at university, meaning they were less likely to seek help.5

A Bridge Group report on the relationship between careers services and social mobility states that students attending schools with a robust approach to CEAIG are advantaged in developing their career capability.

Experiences before university shape attitudes towards engagement in employability thinking, and those who enter higher education with a clear understanding of the need to develop outside of their academic achievements are more likely to ‘maximise the opportunities available during their experience and secure positive employment outcomes’.6

Actively increasing employability

The evidence indicates that students from lower socio-economic backgrounds are less likely to join societies, take leadership roles in sport, carry out work experience linked to career interests, participate in educational exchanges or take up internship opportunities.7

Students from lower socio-economic backgrounds seem caught in a vicious cycle – less equipped to enhance their employability or understand the complexities of the graduate labour market, but potentially less likely to access help from careers services in order to rectify the problem.

Careers services may need to consider how support is branded at university so that it is distinct and different from provision that students have previously encountered, counteracting negative associations.

Practical solutions

Early intervention is particularly useful in encouraging participation in employability activities from day one.

Perhaps it is possible to begin even earlier. Although many services in higher education are experiencing financial constraints, collaboration with schools can be achieved on a budget.

If pre-entry students understood key messages, such as the need to develop outside of their academic learning, there might be more engagement with careers provision at university. This could be particularly impactful for those from low socio-economic backgrounds.

Collaboration might involve providing resources for outreach workers and career practitioners such as:

  • training sessions
  • webinars
  • videos

Alternatively, collaboration could come in the form of a coordinated knowledge exchange between AGCAS and the Career Development Institute (CDI), which represents many school-based practitioners.

It appears there is an appetite for this amongst school based advisers who recently requested data and case studies to clarify the progression routes from undergraduate degrees.8

Publications such as What do graduates do? can be widely shared with colleagues in statutory and further education, and could easily form a basis for training events or conferences.

Please get in touch with the Education Liaison Task Group via the AGCAS website if you would like support with using the publication in this way.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of HECSU/Prospects


  1. Careers guidance in schools: Going in the right direction? OFSTED, 2013.
  2. First-Year Student Career Readiness Survey Zhu, H. (2016).
  3. Aspire 2 Project Spotlight, Year 11 Students’ Views of Careers Education and Work Experience, L. Archer and J. Moote, 2016.
  4. AGCAS/AGR Graduate Success Project; An investigation of graduate transitions, social mobility and the HEAR, M. Pennington, E. Mosely, R. Sinclair, 2013.
  5. Initiating Change in Career Decision Making: An Action Research Approach, Paul Greenbank, 2010.
  6. Social Mobility and University Careers Services, Bridge Group, May 2017.
  7. Ibid.
  8. To what extent has the fragmentation of careers education and guidance, offered to young people in schools and colleges affected the level of career readiness which students have when they arrive at university? L. Aldridge, 2017.

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