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and why Suzy Harris’s revival of an old aphorism
about the malleability of careers education
is now as relevant as ever

Enabling people to move on in their working lives may or may not now be called ‘careers work’.
It might be...

‘careers’ - ‘information’
‘career’ - ‘guidance’
‘life-role relevant’ - ‘education’
‘vocational’ - ‘advice’

or any combination of one of these adjectives with one of these nouns.

But whatever we call it, is all meant to be ‘help’. And it is all offered to people who are in process of moving on in their lives. You’d think, after a century of trying to work out how to do it, we would be now have worked out what to call it.

But no!

Suzy Harris helps to explains why. Her book about policy for careers education is an important contribution to a conversation with too few voices. She traces the history of policy involvement in careers education.

The past is only worth visiting if it helps us to understand the present. Sometimes it does. Suzy Harris devotes pages of her book to the Schools Council Careers Education and Guidance Project. It was active in the ‘70s, and was one of the most creative - and least understood - initiatives in careers work. (I may be biased here: one of its directors, John Storey, is now the other grandfather to my youngest granddaughter!) A key element in John’s project was a series of simulated newspapers, with news items, quizzes, self-help questionnaires, games, correspondence columns, pictures and all kinds of features. (Think of the current classroom material The Real Game - but with strong story lines).

A newspaper was probably a better idea then than it would be now; but it sure-enough raised issues for working life - how it works, who does what, and what things are like for its people. The designers wanted not just to equip learners to fit in, but to understand - and to be active. A criticism at the time was that teachers could not safely be left to engage young minds in such dynamics.

The project became one of the places where education, business and political interests first came into serious conversation with each other. One of the most telling remarks about that process was, at that time, made by an evaluator - Inge Bates. The concept of careers education, she said, ‘is infinitely malleable’. If she was right about that, careers education will, since then, have proven capable of taking on whatever shape whatever strong hand cares to press upon it.

Suzy Harris says this has happened. And it is because, she says, careers education is ‘a contested concept’. She develops the point with further tales - of the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, the Education Reform Act, and the privatisation of the Careers Service. Her book was written before the proposals for citizenship and Connexions were published. But she has more than enough to go on.

Economic change, she says, impacts policy, which then seeks to influence education. And careers education has been easy to bounce around because it has lacked a robust intellectual foundation.

Suzy is both right and wrong in the detail. Basic ideas in careers education are, you might agree, a bit of a rag-bag. Those who are so disposed can find fragments of ‘structuralism’, ‘humanism’, ‘symbolic interactionism’, ‘hermeneutics’ and ‘constructivism’ underpinning our work. We are a happy hunting ground for the "...ologies". They are sometimes helpful, sometimes not. It’s not that we lack ideas, it is that we have pretty-well failed to get them sorted into any coherent and usable framework. This is despite the various attempts made by the training, research and development institutes, by a strong academic literature, and by the open-learning pack Careers Work,. But Suzy seems to know little of any of this. I'm not entirely sure that much of it would have substantially change the direction of her argument.

And this is because ‘contesting’ voices will not be silenced. Because careers work is about who gets to do what in our society, it evokes issues for personal autonomy, work-and-learning, equal opportunities, and attachment-and-exclusion. And it can also be related to educational standards and the economic performance. These issues compels the interest of interested parties; and that provokes debate – requires it. Whatever line you take, there is something to get excited about. And powerful people are getting agitated. The bouncing around of careers work was pretty-well inevitable.

What is certainly true is that the ‘..ologies’ - when written up in obscure, pedantic, hair-splitting and jargon-ridden form - were out of the frame. So it has not been difficult to promote a new vocabulary to signpost our work. 'Careership’ - an attempt at verbal hijacking if ever there was one - was said to be about ‘skills’ with no mention of ‘feelings’; ‘choice’ with no mention of ‘culture’; ‘information’ with no mention of ‘learning’. The deeper, more dynamic and less tractable issues - like transfer-of-learning, social-class and alternative forms of work - were ignored. Policy and its most powerful constituencies needed clear, measurable and economically relevant outcomes. The rest has been - at least for a while - silence.

Nothing stands still, and turn-of-the-millennium proposals on citizenship and Connexions won’t work on the basis of this simple-mindedness. So Suzy Harris’s thesis is useful: what has gone wrong has gone wrong at the level of ideas. We need to understand all of this in order in order to know what to do about it.

It is ideas, and it is the words we use to express them. The first casualty of war is said to be truth. A first tactic in debate is the to take control of the terms. A useful strategy in any conflict-of-interest is to get control of the language. Language is not merely a neutral communication-tool. Words frame the way we take things to be. To redirect our journey, with no signpost for ‘feelings’, ‘culture’ or ‘crime’, may seem to simplify our route. But it won’t take us far in either Connexions or citizenship.

If anything, we've probably already had too much of the ...ologies. What we lack is a coherent organisation of our most basic ideas. We do need to learn the lessons of the late-twentieth century. But moving on is about being flexible, not malleable. It also means knowing which way is ‘forward’. And for that we need good signposts - in the right language - pointing us to where we need to go.

Suzy eloquently demonstrates why.


Suzy Harris
Careers Education: Contesting Policy and Practic
London: Paul Chapman
ISBN 1-85396-438-7 1-85396-390-9 (pbk)

This review is a condensation of two ’Point of Departure’ articles in
The NICEC Career Research and Development Journal -
nos. 6, 2002 & 8, 2003

of the Career-learning Café
in 'a good read'

a short review of thinking for contemporary careers work and citizenship
a longer one
more on appropriate policy frameworks

any thoughts?-

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