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How should we handle students' unrealistic ambitions?

Footballer? YouTuber? A balance can be struck between widening horizons and laying the groundwork, says Andrew Foster

We need to encourage ambition among pupils but help them find an achievable career goal, writes Andrew Foster

Footballer? YouTuber? A balance can be struck between widening horizons and laying the groundwork, says Andrew Foster

“Chilling and ghastly… Who ARE these soulless people?”

This comment by actor and writer Mark Gatiss was part of a robust and at times angry response to recent statements by Amanda Spielman regarding arts and media courses for young people.

The Ofsted chief inspector had suggested in her speech to the Association of Colleges that “course adverts often listed potential jobs in the arts, which are, in reality, unlikely to be available to the vast majority of learners”. Actor and writer Meera Syal and author Joanne Harris were amongst others who expressed similar concerns that Spielman’s remarks were unhelpful and perhaps actively damaging to children with ambitions of careers in the arts and media.

Spielman has since qualified her statement in a letter to The Stage newspaper, but it does bring to the foreground a larger issue that deserves greater attention – and not just in colleges.

What do we do when a student’s stated ambitions seem to us to be improbable? A Year 9 pupil once announced to me “I want to be a lawyer… I hate reading”.

We should not be surprised when pupils do not demonstrate a good understanding of the working world and its demands. They have no or very little direct experience of it, their indirect experience will often be very narrow and limited, and currently little time is given in most schools for them to be explicitly taught about it.

Better careers guidance


Teachers sometimes despair when pupils express a desire to be a footballer, a rapper or, more lately, a YouTuber. But we can do much better than to merely roll our eyes.

We should first be mindful that although some jobs may seem “unrealistic”, every person doing them now was a child themselves once. And teachers should not overestimate their powers of prediction. It is instructive to hear that England captain Harry Kane’s junior coaches admit they gave him little chance of even making it at club level; to read of the 80 or so rejection letters Man Booker Prize-winning author Marlon James received from publishers.

But “follow your dreams” will not suffice. Schools should not seek to discourage their pupils but they might try to enlighten them. The YouTuber they admire may appear to have succeeded effortlessly. But that is the trick. The slickness of the videos that get the most views is, more often than not, the result of hours of editing, and years of previous, less fruitful attempts. Further, some of the most desired careers within arts and media do have an expectation of certain academic qualifications that Spielman was right to identify as a major barrier to many. Some pathways really are unrealistic until the groundwork is laid.

As well as this, we might look to widen the target area. Performer is not the only job in entertainment, YouTuber is not the only job in new media, footballer is not the only job in football. Pupils’ interest in specific careers we know to be highly competitive may lead to something related, even if their ambitions end up evolving over time.

None of this can be done well without time and resources. Currently, though, in most schools the staff with the greatest expertise in careers are few in number and see pupils infrequently. Careers evenings and other one-offs, plus informal advice from form and subject teachers, can be helpful, but if we are serious about supporting young people as best we can, then the answer would have to involve a major change in the way that we do so – regular time given for expert group and individual support, with far greater resources provided to do so.

I think both Amanda Spielman, who I saw give her own time on a weekend this September to support the fledgling “New Voices’ teacher conference, and Mark Gatiss, who has spoken movingly about the discouragement he faced as a young boy in County Durham, care about helping young people. And while they might be at odds here, there is merit in each of their perspectives.

If children in our schools and young people in our colleges are to thrive both there and beyond, they need attention paid both to widening their horizons and the practicalities needed to achieve those subsequent ambitions. The irony is that it is probably unrealistic to expect rapid, great and successful change. But a first step might be for both sides of this debate to recognise what each other has to contribute.

Andrew Foster is head of education at Tougher Minds

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