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Dreaming of life, the universe and everything

A utilitarian focus on the ultimate employability of school-leavers threatens to limit what our children can learn, achieve and enjoy

What are you going to be when you grow up? It's one of those universal and timeless questions that adults ask children, smiling wryly at the innocence of answers such as "a princess" or "a superhero".

Occasionally, responses say something about geographic and historical contexts. When I was little, popular replies included "an astronaut" (the first Moon landing had captured young imaginations) and "a spy" (the Cold War was raging). Today, replies often reflect our celebrity culture: winning The X Factor is a popular aspiration.

Similarly, but also far removed, it's not surprising that the "star" of an African aid film some years ago, seven-year-old Dapo, confidently asserted while sitting on the floor of a bush school, "I am going to be a doctor to save everyone's lives." After all, for those living in dire poverty or conflict zones, superheroes would indeed be those who could zap the horrors of malaria, malnutrition and war wounds.

Adults tend not to disabuse children of their optimistic imaginings as they shoot for the stars, however unrealistic their ambitions. Warning Dapo that getting into medical school would require straight As, or lecturing Johnny on how hard it is to snag a job at Nasa, would be downright mean-spirited. And yet a new fad in education - introducing careers advice ever earlier - threatens to drag children down to earth.

In a preschool scheme in the US, the "what do you want to be?" game has been co-opted as a way to introduce a practical "unit on occupations explored through activities, crafts and even guest speakers". It is suggested that this can be used to encourage preschoolers to have more realistic aspirations for their future careers, as well as develop their potential employability.

Similarly, the European Union's new vocational education chief James Calleja (as reported in TES in December) argues that children should be preparing for work from the age of 11, with careers guidance, work experience and job observations introduced at the start of secondary school. Meanwhile, in the Skills and Employment Manifesto, published by the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) in January, careers advice and business engagement is advocated for primary school children, starting at key stage 2. The BCC's John Wastnage says: "I don't think you can start careers advice too early."

Actually, you can. Replacing the carefree, open-ended aspirations of childhood with the grown-up grind of earning a living should be denounced as the corruption of youth.

Worse, this trend also threatens to redefine the core purpose of education. The BCC argues that there "needs to be a shift in education to make it as much about employability as it is about academic achievement", and calls for a partnership between England's schools inspectorate Ofsted and businesses to ensure that schools are being assessed on their success rate in producing "fully formed skilled workers". It demands that Ofsted measure schools on the employment outcomes of their students, while, in turn, students should be taught to "see the labour market as an important end result" of their schooling.

Educators should resist this at all costs. Teachers have a privileged role in initiating children into the astonishing achievements of their fellow humans, the secrets of the natural universe, the sublime beauty of the arts and the sheer excitement of discovering what they don't yet know. Why trade that in to act as instructors in the drab immediacy of the labour market? Surely we want students to be able to imagine worlds and ideas far beyond mundane bread-and-butter realities.

Yet many educators, who may disdainfully reject the calls of business to train students to suit employers' needs, still sadly accept the link between education and employment, albeit using the language of "relevance" and modernisation rather than commerce, or driven by concern about growing youth unemployment. But whatever the motives, the popular educational argument that the curriculum should be updated to cater for the fast-changing needs of the 21st century inevitably feeds utilitarian discussions. We're told that today's youth has a greater need for transferable skills than it does for Chaucer, and those who argue for knowledge for its own sake are written off as fuddy-duddy elitists who don't understand education as a key factor in social mobility. "Employability" is less of a dirty word in staffrooms than "didacticism".

But although joblessness among the young is a troubling social and economic problem, it's important to remember that it is not an educational issue per se. It may be tempting to threaten students that they need to revise lest they end up unemployed, but this can reduce qualifications to instrumental means to non-educational ends.

Populating dreams

So, how do you answer Becky, who feels no need to learn about the Tudors because she already has a job in her mother's hairdressing salon? Many students already moan about studying anything that won't contribute to their job prospects ("but I will never need geometry as a journalist") and teenagers - or their parents - choose subjects guided by vocational outcomes rather than their passion for the discipline or intellectual development.

Additionally, if job acquisition and careers become the main angst-ridden focus of school days, might it not make the young over-anxious and fatalistic about their future prospects? Unhelpful scaremongering and lurid headlines focus on the "jilted generation's" hopeless plight brought on by joblessness.

Martina Milburn, chief executive of The Prince's Trust, stated recently, "Unemployment is proven to cause devastating, long-lasting mental health problems among young people", based on a poll conducted by YouGov in December, in which 9 per cent of approximately 2,000 young unemployed people agreed with the statement "I have nothing to live for".

Despite the dicey use of statistics and evidence, this may well be enough to make any teacher fear that unless they skill up their students, they might be responsible for destroying their lives. But the real tragedy would be to encourage the young to imagine that a lack of a job means life is not worth living. What of family, freedom, love, literature, life itself?

And isn't there a danger that such fatalistic hyperbole might become a self-fulfilling prophecy, encouraging young people to internalise the idea that they won't be able to cope without a job, or become unduly depressed about their future prospects? Of course, being unemployed can be grim and demeaning, but let's explain that it's not the end of the world because it need not be permanent. Young school-leavers - with all the energy, resilience and resourcefulness associated with that age - need to know that they have the ability to do something to change their circumstances.

Remember Dapo, the African boy who wanted to be a doctor? By 16, with no qualifications or careers advice, he had crossed continents illegally to get to Europe. With guts, gumption and dreams, he worked in low-paid, menial jobs and eventually funded his own studies. And now? He's a surgeon in the US, and also an enthusiastic amateur poet, having fallen in love with Yeats and Shelley on his literal and metaphorical journey.

Let children dream, and let teachers populate those dreams with poetry, ideas and wonders they have not yet dreamed of. Let's leave employability to the philistine jobsworths outside the school gate.

Claire Fox is director of the Institute of Ideas

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