The right course, from the start

Independent school pupils need good careers guidance throughout their education, not just when choosing a university, writes Graham Lacey
"Just make sure you apply to a decent university," was, I seem to remember, the extent of the career advice that I received at school. Sound advice as far as it went, but hardly sufficient to ensure my future happiness nor to give me the edge over the many others applying to the same institution. But this was, on second thoughts, a time when passage from one elite institution, public school, to another, an old-established university, was considerably easier than it is today.

Most independent schools now offer a careers service and facilities that would bewilder my old careers master if he were alive to witness it.

Change comes more easily to some schools than others, and it is perhaps in some of the more well-established (and expensive) where careers departments may still be found tucked away on the north-west corner of the campus and run by a "master" put out to grass by a new headteacher.

Undoubtedly, there is a built-in inertia and conservatism in some of our independent schools, but most realise the educational and commercial value of a careers department at the centre of school life. They recognise there is no irreconcilable conflict between the long-established and cherished principle of education being a valuable end in itself and the role it must also play of providing the means to an end.

External influences have brought about this change. Independent schools are living in economic conditions that appear to be fulfilling Darwinian theory, forcing them to be much more sensitive to market demand. That has emphasised the importance of exam results and the role the school should play in putting these results to best use.

Not surprisingly, it is advice and information on higher education, to which most independent school-leavers aspire, where developments in careers departments have been most pronounced.

Because of the massive expansion in student numbers over the past decade, admission to higher education is no longer much of a challenge, particularly for independent school-leavers. But market forces have been at work here, too, and are contributing to the emergence of a top league of universities, for which competition is fierce.

Careers advisers rightly give priority to finding the most suitable courses, but choice of institution is becoming increasingly important. For it is from these institutions that the blue-chip companies, to which many parents belong and their offspring aspire to join, do much of their recruiting.

Because our antiquated admissions system forces prospective applicants to apply to university a good year before "going up", they have to start the necessary preparation shortly after entering the sixth form. But contact with the careers department should be made some time before this. Advice over the selection of A-level subjects, which have a crucial influence on the range of university course choices, is essential. And then there is the issue of psychometric testing, now seen as vital for a 15-year- old in the crucial decisions that lie ahead.

A carefully structured and co-ordinated "work experience" programme should also be an accepted part of the department's responsibility. Now that government has begun to promote careers education and guidance in maintained schools from as early as Year 9, it seems likely that independent schools will have to fall into line and offer a structured and clearly identifiable careers programme from the moment pupils start their secondary education.

I watch with interest as prospective parents are given a guided tour of our school. Yes, they want good facilities for their child to develop outside the classroom. Yes, they expect good teaching, a supportive tutorial system, thriving sports, extra-curricular activities and a happy community. But they also want to be assured that human, literary and technical facilities are in place to ensure their child is not cast adrift after the last exam, but given all the help necessary to pave the way for university and beyond. And with school boarding fees at pounds 11,000 a year, who can blame them?

The writer is head of careers at Sevenoaks School.