According to a Department for Education guidance document from March 2015: “Modern careers guidance is as much about inspiration and aspiration as it is about advice.” So, before we start exploring careers guidance, it makes sense to think about practical ways of inspiring our students and raising their aspirations.
Inspiring students about universities, colleges and careers can never be the work of the careers department in isolation. A whole school approach is essential and can take many different forms. In the school where I work we have concentrated on these five key areas.
1. Academic enrichment
Whether we like it or not, we send implicit messages to our students about what really matters through what we do and say. If all we speak to them about are exams then exam results will be all they are interested in but there is so much more to education than exams. As part of our strategy to broaden students’ academic horizons, we created a series of staff lectures, freeing staff from the restrictions of the curriculum so they could inspire students to enjoy learning for its own sake.
Like many schools, we continue to have an external speaker’s programme but, recognising the talent of our own staff and trusting their ability to pitch talks at just the right level, we asked for volunteers to deliver 25-minute lunchtime lectures. Our brief was simple: they could talk about any topic they were enthusiastic about, they could wander as far from their curriculum as they liked, and they should aim to stretch their audience. The volunteers duly came forward. Then we waited to see if anyone would turn up to listen.
The lectures have been more successful than we could ever have hoped. Students have turned up in huge numbers. The lectures themselves have been excellent. Teachers kept volunteering. In fact, our lecture series is about to enter its fourth year and we have even been able to establish a school research forum to run in parallel with it.
2. Student involvement
After attending staff lectures for a year, some of the 6th Form asked if they could have a go, so two years ago we launched a series of 6th Form lectures as well. Students have exactly the same brief as their teachers and have risen to the challenge really impressively. We have had lectures on everything from the History of the Paralympics to the Politics of Remembrance, from Bee-Keeping to the Septuagint. Audiences have been consistently good. The lectures have themselves have been excellent. The impact on the academic culture of the school has been entirely positive. That students should choose to give and listen to lectures during their lunch breaks is a tangible sign of inspiration and aspiration at work.
3. High-level writing
A natural next step was to create an opportunity for students to write as well as speak at a high level. The forum we created was an online journal that brought together school, universities and the world of work. Each edition focussed on a separate topic, the most recent being Language and Languages [https://issuu.com/woldinghamschool/docs/xenizonta_iii_summer_2016_8394431de170f8], with articles being written by students, teachers, parents, governors, and alumni. Writing in the same journal as big names like Mary Curnock Cook and Caroline Wyatt, students have been inspired to raise their writing game, knowing that they have real and discriminating readers.
4. Wider reading
Since high-level writing needs to be underpinned by either wide or deep reading, we also decided to create an academic extension library in our Careers Room. Students are invited to borrow not just prospectuses and career guides but a hugely eclectic mix of books on everything from genetic research to the idea of north. The extension library is another tangible sign of our commitment to learning for its own sake. It is true that students may choose to read around because they have a looming personal statement but we are also increasingly seeing students borrowing and reading books simply because they look intriguing.
5. Focussed higher education and careers advice
Each of the initiatives outlined above helps create an environment in which meaningful higher education and careers advice can take place. Students can be freed from their preoccupation with certain universities if they have developed a clear sense of what they are genuinely interested in, allowing higher education advice to become as much about the courses available as about the name of the university or college. However, this advice needs to be carefully focussed because there are so many wonderful opportunities out there.
This year we have concentrated not just on raising aspirations but on broadening them too. We have had talks from the University of Southampton on alternatives to Medicine for scientists, from Lancaster University on 10 degrees students may not have considered, and from Luke Walton of enterthepitch.com on the whole range of careers in the film industry. Students are often really excited to discover higher education and career options that they simply didn’t know existed.
Inspiration and aspiration can and should be at the heart of careers guidance but that certainly doesn’t mean that we have to give way to vagueness and empty emotion. There are very concrete measures we can put in place to inspire our students and both raise and broaden their aspirations. But so much for the groundwork. In my next posts I will move onto some of the specifics.
Roy Peachey is head of higher education and careers at Woldingham School in Caterham.