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Access to a much wider range of career role models will benefit children

4 min read

Baroness Sue Garden looks at how children and young people decide on a career, ahead of her question in the House of Lords today on increasing knowledge of work skills, careers and jobs amongst primary school children.

When I was in primary school – a long time ago - I can’t recall any adults coming into school to talk to us, apart from the local policeman to talk about “stranger danger” and occasionally the local vicar, at harvest festival and for our carol concert. We used to see the postman and sometimes a van delivering food to the school kitchen or bringing in things like paper and exercise books but no one ever came in to tell us about their “career”.

Careers education, such as it was, was only provided in secondary schools with younger children dreaming of being an engine driver (boys) and an air hostess (girls).  Many girls were told that getting married would be a career in itself.

In the 1950’s, few people would have heard the term “social mobility”: it was a grammar school education that enabled children, after the 11+, to aspire to a good job, for which passing GCE’s at 16+ was the first hurdle. Most children, who went to secondary modern schools, left school without taking any examinations until the 1970’s when the school leaving age was raised to 16 and CSE examinations were developed.

Young people who went to grammar school were encouraged to go on to university, or, after GCSEs at 16 or A-levels at 18, to go into the local labour market where good jobs included a job in a bank or an office.

The young people who went to secondary modern would go straight into the labour market at 15, with a five-year apprenticeship being the pick of the jobs on offer.

The days of accepting that society should continue to comprise rich men in their -metaphorical – castles and poor men at the gate have long gone. We are much more aware that we need to broaden every child’s horizons and raise their aspirations. We need to help boys - and especially girls - to understand that working hard in primary school is the first building block in working towards a career.

Raising the aspirations of primary children is key to later success – but they need to know what they can aspire to! Children whose parents work in fairly routine, and often low-paid, jobs need to have their eyes opened to the wide range of opportunities.

Education and Employers launched “Inspiring the Future” six years ago to connect volunteers with secondary schools with the aim of telling secondary school students “yes you can”. In 2013 the National Association of Head Teachers contacted Education and Employers to see how primary-age pupils could benefit from learning about what was possible.

A review in 2016 showed that children as young as 7 began to rule some jobs in and some jobs out, particularly around gender stereotypes. Later that year, a survey of primary teachers showed that nine out of ten teachers believed that knowing about careers improved education outcomes and had a real impact on children developing a positive attitude to school.

Recent research has shown that primary students will benefit from greater access to a much wider range of career role models: currently, the pattern of jobs chosen by seven-year-olds is similar to that chosen by 17-year-olds.

Children whose parents are in professional or skilled jobs will often meet adults doing a range of well-paid jobs and will be able to build up an idea of the career they might like to follow. For many other children, however, it is only in the school setting that they can meet men and women doing a variety of different jobs – jobs that they might aspire to.

We can use technology to give all children access to meet people from many different backgrounds doing a range of interesting jobs – irrespective of the work their parents do. Getting more volunteers, from a wide range of jobs, to spend time in schools is one of the best ways of making young children aware of the jobs they can aspire to,

Raising aspirations among all children is a global challenge – the world will be watching!


Baroness Garden is a Liberal Democrat peer in the House of Lords.

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