In its broadest sense, career education in secondary schools plays an important role in preparing young people to manage the uncertainties of adult life, and enable them to become effective citizens and/or workers. Thus it is concerned with the development of the whole child, not simply their educational and/or occupational destinations. Yet career learning does not occur in a vacuum as students bring with them lived experiences and cultural realities which extend beyond the confines of school. For many, parents, families and communities exert a considerable influence on the decisions they make, choices they take, and their understanding of the world. The importance attached to parental participation, family involvement, and engagement with communities has been recognised by New Zealand Careers Services as being fundamental if career development is to be effective. However they have identified that a gap exists between the rhetoric and reality of this. Whilst there is much written in the career literature, emanating from America in particular, about the influence of parents and families (Whiston & Keller, 2004), and the importance of social context (Blustein, 2004; Motulsky, 2010), what is less well-know relates to the ways in which parents, families and communities are perceived, and positioned, by career advisors in schools.
This paper reports on one key finding from my PhD research where I am examining career education from a social justice perspective. In my qualitative study of the New Zealand policy guidelines for career education and guidance in schools, and through interviews with career advisors in a cosmopolitan and provincial city, I explored how parents, families and communities were positioned, and how their role as career mediators was envisaged. The findings indicated that whilst parents and families are perceived differentially with regards to ethnicity and socioeconomic class, there was also a tendency to position them as potential 'problems' who lacked information and/or do not always act in their child's best interests. Moreover, the career advisors expressed a degree of helplessness in relation to how they might engage parents/families in the career education process, and connect with communities. Although well intentioned, the desire to 'include' parents, families and communities often served as an extension of the disciplinary mechanisms that underpin the neoliberal project in which individuals are held responsible for their 'successes' and 'failures', and where family values act as markers of (under)achievement, (dis)engagement, and (in)equality. If partnership and participation is to be meaningful, change is required.