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You are reading: The great social divide: The reality of career advice for our disadvantaged youth

Written by Jane Coffey1 and Dawn Bennett2

When it comes to planning out future career aspirations and dreams, we know that a critical point in young peoples’ lives is when subject selection and study pathway decisions are made at secondary school. So, what if they don’t receive the right advice or no advice at all?

The findings of a recent NCSEHE-funded study on the provision of career advice and study pathways information found students who attend private schools and students from middle to high socioeconomic status (SES) backgrounds have greater access to career information and are more likely to be directed toward university pathways. In contrast, students from low SES backgrounds are commonly directed towards VET and TAFE pathways. They are also more likely to receive little to no advice at all.

The researchers analysed existing data from 59,000 responses to the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) over 25 years, conducted a national survey of school career advisors and influencers, asked over 6,000 university students to self-assess their career and study confidence, and listened to the accounts of low SES secondary school and university students who talked about their decision making whilst at school.

The study found that career information in schools is provided by time- and resource-poor career practitioners or by teachers who feel ill-prepared to guide students through the decision making process. Advice at all SES levels tends to be limited to subject selection rather than an exploration of the future of work, individual student interests, or career aspirations.

Young Australians from socially and geographically disadvantaged backgrounds describe a school system that privileges higher education pathway students and guides some students to non-ATAR subjects on the basis that they might “jeopardise” the school’s performance. Once segregated to the non-ATAR pathways, students describe negligible career support, no information about alternative pathways to higher education, and few opportunities to engage with industry and Work Integrated Learning.

University students who attended government schools, regardless of SES, report lower career and study confidence. This suggests that the impacts of inadequate career and study information in secondary school extend into university. Add a pandemic into the mix and the negative impact of disadvantage in higher education is likely to be greater than ever.

The research team, from Curtin University, Bond University, The University of Western Australia, and the Career Industry Council of Australia, were shocked by the extent of the findings. The researchers advocate for the systematic use of available data in the support of career exploration and readiness, for accessible career information that emphasises multiple study and career pathways, and for the inclusion of career guidance information in initial teacher training.

1Bond University
2Curtin University