Quality standards for career guidance: Lessons from the UK

Do we need standards? Ultimately the value of any kind of advice rests on the wisdom of the person who offers it.

By Ruth Hawthorn, Fellow, 2005
National Association for Careers Education and Counselling


Do we need standards? Ultimately the value of any kind of advice rests on the wisdom of the person who offers it. But:

  • even the wisest careers adviser needs back-up from her or his organisation;
  • an organisation needs to know how to select the wisest people to provide the advice;
  • if a government is going to put public money into a national service, how can it be sure the money is not going to be wasted?
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A quasi-market in guidance

The drive for organisational standards for career guidance in the UK acquired urgency in the early 1990s, fuelled especially by the devolution of government funding for adult guidance to local Training and Enterprise Councils (TECs; arrangements in Scotland were somewhat different but followed a similar pattern). This took place in a political climate in which similar things were happening in other public services: local providers were required to compete for the licence to deliver the service (the ‘quasi-market’). At around the same time the creation of TECs, the Careers Service for young people was devolved to independent companies in 1994. How could the quality of a service be maintained once it was devolved? The mood was one of analysis and measurement. During the same period, qualifications for guidance practitioners were under scrutiny, to be reformulated according to the competence-analysis approach of the National Vocational Qualification framework. And in 1994, also in response to this devolution of provision, guidance-providing organisations from across all the many sectors of careers guidance combined to form what is now known as the Guidance Council. It was this Guidance Council, with funding from the government department responsible for adult guidance, that took on the task of developing organisational standards.

What lessons can be learnt from the last ten years experience that could be of use to other countries? I suggest that there are three key ones:

  • that a national quality-assurance system is essential for a general public service, and has benefits beyond the quality of individual agency provision;
  • that the balance between certainty and flexibility can never be finally resolved;
  • that systems of quality assurance, though important, can not on their own guarantee a good professional service.

1. Benefits

While there are many questions about what form the standards should take, the net effect of a single central system is to bring services up to some minimal level of quality that a member of the public could expect. In England in the decades before and since the introduction of the first organisational quality standards, adult career guidance has been provided through local networks of various agencies that offer advice, either specifically or as part of some other function (such as within a college of further vocational education) (for the background, see UDACE, 1986; Hawthorn 1995; Watts and Sadler, 2000). Some are government-funded in a variety of ways, some from the not-for-profit sector, some small independent businesses. The first experiments in government funding of adult guidance networks at the end of the 1980s were beset by problems of assessing their professional and organisational capabilities. With the introduction of standards and the Guidance Accreditation Board in 1999 the problem was greatly reduced: they could not receive public money unless they had met (or could be shown to be working towards) the standards.

So actual standards are raised and problems of public accountability are addressed. But there are other benefits. One problem that faces career guidance, particularly for adults, is the lack of public expectation: few know it exists, and of those who some expect it will solve all their problems and are inappropriately disappointed, or and some are grateful just to talk about themselves for twenty minutes, so are inappropriately satisfied. A standardised service puts in place an essential condition for raising public understanding and marketing. That task still has to be done, and England has not been very successful at it, but at least it has a base to start from that did not exist before the standards.


A second by-product of the focus on quality of the 1990s, both in drafting the practitioner and the organisational standards, was that it brought professionals from all the sectors together on a joint task that they could all see the point of, and which in itself was an interesting sparking point for professional discussion and learning. Besides the many kinds of services aimed at helping adults back into work and training, the services for young people in schools and colleges, the Careers Service as it was, for the university sector, and for adults in employment (to name only the major sectors), all had to sit down round a table and clarify the common core and differences between their professional activities. It was the Guidance Council that choreographed this extraordinary debate, and the field has continued to benefit from those years of close collaboration.

2. Balance

In the early discussions of quality assurance, the problem seemed to be around which model to adopt: at that time contenders were the manufacturing derived ISO 9001 or the more professional-driven one of Total Quality Management. European colleagues (Mooijman and Stevens, 1995) were advocating the European Foundation of Quality Management. In practice, the decision was made by the approach already in use by the Government Department for Employment: this required a detailed standards framework that could be assessed by non-guidance specialists against a checklist. The Guidance Council was bound by its mission to ensure that the standards themselves reflected the interests of the user, but the assessment of the standards was to be conducted on behalf of the government.

When assessment is to be carried out by non-professionals, the standards and the criteria for their achievement must be finely specified. The more finely, the more laborious is the assessment, but also the more deadening to professional creativity and energy, the longer and more expensive the process of assessment, and the less chance that any agency that doesn’t absolutely have to will volunteer to be assessed. In 2002, the Guidance Council revised the first quality standards framework. Branded as the Matrix Standard the complex map was reduced to 10 elements, and the process of assessment (now conducted by a generalist assessment agency called EMQC), was simplified. This has made the quality standard much more attractive to guidance providers. It is still too complex and expensive for the smaller, voluntary-sector providers, which is a problem for the local Information, Advice and Guidance networks; but interestingly it is being adopted by organisations that do not need it for funding purposes. Guidance services in the higher education sector and among employers’ human resources departments are seeking it because they want a ‘quality mark’ and in matrix they see one that is nationally recognised and also suits their work.

On a spectrum that has high specificity, high laboriousness but tight control at one end, the other end is more open-ended specificity and ease of application. But, there are concerns at that end. How does one ensure that organisations of very different kinds of mission, staffing and other resource levels, would actually be experienced by uses as the same standard of provision? Is it not the case that the more ‘open-weave’ the measures, the more it depends on the interpretation of the individual assessor on duty that day? Staff competence, user feedback and continuous quality improvement are three of the matrix elements, which are of course essential features of a good service. But in order to open the quality standard in the way needed at that end of the spectrum, the ‘measures’ must be expressed in terms of ‘to meet service demands’, ‘appropriate support and supervision’ ‘as appropriate’, i.e. defined against very local and specific targets which are difficult to compare. This is a dilemma to which there can be no ‘right’ resolution; it is a matter of finding a pragmatic compromise.

3. Is it enough?

Because of this need for a degree of openness, assessment against a quality framework of this kind cannot be the whole answer to real quality: for that we have to go back to the wise practitioner.

In 1994 when we were looking at the options within which to frame quality, the statements of professional ethics and codes of practice developed by professional associations were seen by some to be enough. Surely, they argued, once trained, a practitioner joins an association, signs up to their codes of practice, and as a professional they would use that as a template for their day-to-day work, and also to develop and improve their work. We knew then that this was not enough to cover the public accountability function of the quality standards; but I suggest that we know now that it is that very spirit of professionalism inherent in those codes that we need to promote if the standards approach is really going to provide a good service to the public.

For this to work, much is needed that paradoxically has been eroded in England in recent years. As suggested at the beginning of this article, a professional needs a minimum of resource, continuity, and flexibility in his or her workload in order to be able to conform to professional codes of practice. This does not only mean access to training and development, and to professional supervision or mentoring, and to time to read and reflect on their practice; but most importantly, enough time with their client to explore and respond to their needs. There are many ways of doing this, but even the apparently labour-saving alternatives like group-work or electronic options need professional reflection and planning. The service to adults and young people in England has been eroded through funding cuts (free services to adults are now limited to people with the lowest educational attainments) and service restructuring (the internationally-respected specialist Careers Service was dismantled and absorbed into Connexions, a general advice service for young people targeted at those at risk of social exclusion). There is no guarantee that a practitioner who achieves the Qualification in Careers Guidance (based on the occupational standards that were so painstakingly defined during the 1990s) will find any employment in which she or he can deploy them, even in organisations that have met the matrix standard. There are too many pressures in current working contexts that militate against our professional ethics; many who are trying to practice responsibly can find it difficult to perform in the way they dearly wish to. Under those conditions it is hard to develop and maintain a professional ethos that would encourage those with less resolve.

What are the lessons?

The recent CEDEFOP report (Henderson et al.,2004), on quality criteria in guidance among the partners of the enlarged EU community, suggests that few countries have yet developed a national approach to quality in guidance that approaches the experience in the UK. However, it is clear that they appreciate the need to address the problem. While every country will have its preferences in how it does so, there are lessons that can be learned from the countries that have already begun. I suggest that we have learned:

  • that a national system is essential;
  • that the balance between certainty and flexibility will have to workable but will not be perfect;
  • that good guidance rests ultimately on a good professional, and for that the shape and funding levels for the service must be protected.


Mooijman, E. and Stevens, R. (1995) ‘Quality improvement and quality assurance in knowledge intensive service organisations’ in Bartholomeus, Y., Brongers, E. and Kristensen, S., eds, The Quest for Quality: Towards Joint European Quality Norms. Leeuwarden, Netherlands: National Careers Guidance Information Centre.

Henderson, L., Hignett, K., Sadler, J., Hawthorn, R. and Plant, P. (2004) Study on Quality Guidelines and Criteria in Guidance. CEDEFOP.

Hawthorn, R. (1995) First Steps: a Quality Standards Framework for Guidance across all Sectors. London: Royal Society of Arts.

UDACE (1986) The Challenge of Change. Leicester: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.

Watts, A.G. and Sadler, J. (2000) Quality Guidance: a Sectoral Analysis. Cambridge: Careers Research Advisory Centre.


The UK is made up of four different countries. The examples in this paper are taken from England.

The model of guidance provision in Northern Ireland was always somewhat different, and since the further devolution of powers to Scotland and Wales (both of which have developed all-age guidance services), there are now four different national systems for career guidance within the UK.


The Guidance Council

The Guidance Accreditation Board

The Matrix Standard



Quality Guidelines and Criteria in Guidance (2004)