Best-Practice Career Education for Students from Low Socioeconomic Status Backgrounds


This article draws upon research conducted between 2019-2021 funded by the Department of Education, Skills and Employment (DESE) and administered by the National Centre for Student Equity in Higher Education (NCSEHE). This article was written by research team members Olivia Groves, Sarah O’Shea, Kylie Austin and Jodi Lamanna.

Career advisors working in schools are not only aware of the importance of their work but equally, the challenges of providing effective career development in the current landscape. Career education has long been under resourced, but this issue has undoubtedly been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic, with remote learning and staff shortages heavily impacting teaching and learning with schools more generally.

Inconsistent school career education is an equity issue with varying levels of provision affecting cohorts of students in very different ways. It is often the students who require the most career development support who are the ones who have limited or inadequate access, which may exacerbate inequities based on social class.

This article shares important insights into ‘what works’ in terms of career education for students from low SES backgrounds and provides a range of recommendations and principles directed at career advisors and schools working in this field.

This article draws on an 18-month study which critically investigated best-practice initiatives in career education for students from low SES backgrounds. The study used a mixed-method approach that included data collection with students, parents and stakeholders as well as the trialling of practical career interventions.

Recommendations for best practice were made for departments of education, industry, tertiary education, school leaders, career advisors, teachers and students. This article will discuss best practices1 related to the work of career advisors identified within the study and then describe how these might be implemented as part of a whole-school approach to career education.

Principle 1

Best-practice career education can be achieved when career advisors work in partnership with school leaders, teachers, parents, industry, tertiary education providers, and the students themselves. Practical examples of partnership work are:

  • Develop parents’ and supporters’ career knowledge and capacity to support their student through communications, workshops and other engagement activities.
  • Recruit past students for alumni presentations, workshops or mentoring, and engage them as partners in program design.
  • Create career loops between final year primary students, their teachers, and families to promote continuity of career education for individual students.

Principle 2

Best-practice career education is place-based and responsive to the local school and community context. In practice this might look like:

  • Explicitly teaching students the ‘hidden’ discourses to navigate the world of work - where careers content extends beyond resume writing and interview skills, to include skills to navigate job markets, independent learning approaches, and entrepreneurial skills.
  • Normalising non-linear journeys through the world of work by asking students ‘What’s first?’ and using language which acknowledges that individuals often have non-linear pathways through education and during employment.
  • Designing career education activities that reflect the local context in relation to employment trends, growth industries, and local employers. At the same time, the school culture should value ongoing education and learning as part of employment, rather than promoting specific pathways or professions.

Principle 3

Career advisors can contribute to best-practice career education for students from low SES backgrounds through working with school leadership to develop a body of evidence to monitor and support their work. This might include:

  • Maintaining detailed records about student engagement in career activities across the school to inform where resourcing needs to be dedicated and to ensure equitable access for all students.
  • Obtaining at least a Graduate Certificate in Career Development so that all students receive the highest quality career education. 
  • Monitoring students’ post-school outcomes at a school level and where possible, evaluate and demonstrate impact of career activities on those outcomes. 

Principle 4

A school-wide approach to career education sees the career adviser act as a facilitator of career education opportunities across the school, rather than the sole provider of it. In practice, a whole-school approach should:

  • Enhance the capacity of all teachers within the school to embed principles of career education within their curriculum and have career conversations with students through teacher professional development. 
  • Position the career adviser as a key source of knowledge and expertise, and the expert in delivering career education within the school but expand the responsibility for career support throughout the whole school.
  • Provide teachers with resources and tools that provide ongoing support so that quality career education continues over time. 

A whole-school approach to career education was implemented as a pilot program at one secondary school in a low SES area, evaluated and written up as a case study of best practice.

In the pilot program, staff at University of Wollongong, in partnership with career advisors from local schools, designed, implemented and evaluated a high-school teacher professional development (PD) program with the aim of expanding the responsibility and practice of career education beyond that of the dedicated career advisor. The PD comprised three one-hour, face-to-face sessions at the high school and focussed on content around career decisions and influences in the changing world of work; career conversations; and careers in the curriculum.

The main finding from the evaluation of this pilot program was how teachers were awakened to the importance of career education and their role in it. “There was a few ‘Aha’ moments in that [first] session” said Rowan2, the UOW Widening-Participating Practitioner who was part of the co-designed and co-implemented program.

Specifically, the PD increased teachers’ knowledge of career terms, career roles, and a whole-school approach to CDL; confidence in having career conversations; and attitude towards implementing a whole-school approach. Imogen (School Career Adviser) commented that the PD participants, “were a very chatty group, they wanted to know more and to talk about their examples as well as to learn new things - so that’s also an indicator of the success [of the pilot].”

If you would like more information about implementing a whole-school approach at your school, a case study and supporting resources are available online for you to use. If you have any questions about the pilot program or best practice career education for students from low SES backgrounds, please contact Kylie Austin [email protected].

1 A document which outlines all the Best-Practice Principles is available here.
2 Pseudonyms are used throughout this article.