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You are reading: Best-practice career education for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds

Kylie Austin1, Sarah O’Shea2Olivia Groves2Jodi Lamanna1

Executive Summary

This report details the findings and recommendations from the NCSEHE-funded project Higher education career advice for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds. This 18-month study critically investigated best-practice initiatives in career education for primary and secondary students from low socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds, including those in regional, rural and remote (RRR) areas of Australia. In undertaking this research, the scope of the project shifted beyond focusing solely on higher education career advice, to career advice more broadly. This shift recognises the valuable learning opportunities that are equally offered by both higher education and vocational education providers, as well as the diversity of learners engaged in Australian schools and recognition of their aspirations for both their future education and employment. As such, the main objective of this study was to establish overriding principles to guide career education provided to school students and non-school-leavers across the sector. In doing so, the project sought to understand how young people from low SES backgrounds make decisions about their educational and vocational futures and to consider best practices in career education for these students.

A mixed methods approach was implemented across four highly collaborative and iterative stages of the project. Stage one provided the context for the project with a comprehensive literature review and desktop audit of current practice. Stage two involved qualitative interviews and surveys with current students, parents and stakeholders in the provision of career education. The findings from the literature review, desktop audit and qualitative interviews and surveys informed the development of a draft set of best practice principles. During stage three, five1 Career Development Learning (CDL) programs were designed, implemented and evaluated according to the draft best-practice principles to consider the types of programs that might best support students. Finally, stage four drew together the findings from each of the previous stages to create a set of recommendations and further develop the Best-Practice Principles2 for the education sector. 

Key Themes

Theme 1 — Effective career education: A game of chance. The research found a mismatch between the approach to career advice and student expectations of career services. As a result of this mismatch, students could miss out and fall through the cracks so quality career education was dependent on opportunity rather than strategy. 

Theme 2 — Key influencers of career education: Ownership and blame. Data collected from students, parents and teachers confirmed that each group is indeed a key influencer of a student’s career decisions, and each can be both an enabler and a disabler of effective career education. What was also revealed was that some groups acutely perceive the disabling tendencies of others, seeing another “influencer” group as problematic for effective career education. This has resulted in a culture of blame and a lack of ownership for career education within educational settings, such as primary and secondary schools. 

Theme 3 — Careers partnership work: Strengths and challenges of two approaches. Two main approaches to schools working in partnership with universities, not-for-profit organisations, vocational education providers, government agencies and industry bodies were revealed. Despite the prevalence of ‘hub-and-spoke’ approaches, a collaborative, multi-stakeholder partnership approach is best able to support students’ achievement of their educational and vocational goals. 

Theme 4 — Pathways and transitions: The need to support choice and flexibility. Student participants in this research described diverse and individualised school-to-work routes as well as a need to be flexible or “work it out” due to disruptions or changes. These disruptions included school subject availability, illness, aspiration uncertainty, and a sense of being pushed and pulled. Students also discussed how they may have been funnelled into particular pathways but valued exploration of multiple options and opportunities.  

Theme 5 — The unique experiences of students from low SES backgrounds in regional, rural and remote areas. Participants reflected on how work and training opportunities in smaller communities can be informal and intimate, requiring networking and specific skills. They also referenced the scarcity and competitiveness of employment opportunities and the deep push-pull to stay in or leave their communities. 


Recommendation 1: The Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE)’s National Careers Institute to implement the concept and term Career Development Learning (CDL) consistently across Australian career-related activities to usefully clarify, connect and direct endeavours across sectors and political and geographic boundaries. 

Recommendation 2: The DESE’s National Careers Institute to develop a plan for CDL that clearly articulates the responsibilities of schools, parents and supporters and external stakeholder groups across the student life cycle. 

Recommendation 3: The DESE’s National Careers Institute to work collaboratively with state-based education departments to enhance the quality of CDL in schools with the goal of enabling students from LSES backgrounds, RRR areas and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander students, to make more informed decisions about their futures. 

Recommendation 4: The DESE’s National Careers Institute to define effective partnership practices within the context of CDL, identifying the need for partnerships to be led by “impartial” stakeholders, such as Regional University Centres (RUCs) or other independent bodies. 

Recommendation 5: Schools and key stakeholders, such as universities, vocational education providers, industry and community organisations, to design CDL programs in ways that are student-centred and place-based, and reflect the non-linear journeys that characterise the world of work.

Full report

Read the full report here: Best-practice career education for students from low socioeconomic status backgrounds


1University of Wollongong

2National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education

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