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How to keep stars in their eyes in the real world

"She wants to be a vet." How many of us have heard this at parents'

consultations, or from students themselves, and felt our heart sink? You know that she may get enough C grades at GCSE to get into A-level courses, but she may not. She has no chance of the three or four A grades she will need to get into vet school and, even if she does get them, the courses are massively oversubscribed.

We are duty bound to gently quash false aspirations. Or are we? Should we let our student go on believing she can make it; after all, it will be a motivating force during GCSE and may push her towards a hatful of C grades that the school badly needs.

The way forward is to let her know what the circumstances surrounding entry to the career are, and let her courage and commitment carry her through. In this way we fulfil our responsibility by providing appropriate information without belittling her ambitions.

Move on to August and she hasn't made the grade for A-level. What if the local tertiary college provided a vocational qualification in veterinary science and the blurb in its prospectus read: "This programme enhances your chances of a place in the industry, which is very competitive. We cannot promise to make you a vet but we can help you on to a faster track." This course has "no formal entry qualifications" - better and better.

It, and other institutions in the country (if this were not a fictitious scenario), are turning out people qualified to work in an industry with a finite workforce that could not possibly begin to absorb them at any level.

It couldn't happen to a vet - but it could to a music technologist.

The quotes above were taken from a prospectus for a BTec national diploma in music technology - replace "we cannot promise to make you a vet" with "we cannot promise to make you a star". But there are stars on these courses. There are people who have been mixing and scratching in their bedroom or garage for years and have produced some quality music. Or they've always been into sound engineering, taken control of the sound and light at school productions and worked in a studio at weekends. However, they are few and far between.

What if you love music, have followed the top DJs, and want to be a part of the Fame Academy world? Reality TV shows based on the performing arts are big business and they depend on thousands of people projecting themselves into the star-is-born role. You can appear to be pursuing a career as a DJ, singer or actor without ever having had a singing lesson, acted in a school production or performed in amateur dramatics. All you need to do is choose the right course and you are unlikely to be dissuaded from your idea that you will earn your living in this field. Those few students who make it are committed before they get to this stage; they've been doing it for years.

While the vet versus performing arts comparison is a little clunky, it highlights our professional responsibility as teachers to be realistic about students' aspirations. We don't predict inflated exam grades for students, whatever their ideas about their chances of success. Why accept them on to a course on the grounds of inflated aspirations?

All of the blurbs I have read for tertiary performing arts and music technology courses emphasise career progression. The sector is encouraging young people to enter a highly competitive field - in which the personal costs of failure can be considerable - in pursuit of a cynical numbers game. We are in danger of exploiting post-16 students in an extension of the commercial world that we should be protecting them from.

Peter Thompson is a music teacher in an 11-16 secondary school in the south-east

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