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Opinion: How to make careers advice less 'tick-boxy'

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"If a picture paints a thousand words, then why can’t I paint you?" Probably because you never trusted me with the paint when I was little. Perhaps you were worried that I might get dirty, or about what "health and safety" might have to say.

When I was 8, I wanted to be a painter and a pianist…and a pilot, and a cowboy and Sherlock Holmes. In the end, the grown-ups got there first – with their "that’s not a real job", their "you’re too young" and with their "careers education" – the ceilings of aspiration and ambition suitably lowered, the tone set and my future institutionalised within the confines of what secondary education could teach me.

Roll forward the years and sadly not much seems to have changed. "Futures" are still taught in the secondary phase, and destinations are determined by tests, policies and percentages, not by what is right and appropriate for the individual. Elementary: there is just no room for Sherlock Holmes!

But wait…

Could it be that the recent announcements by education and childcare minister Sam Gyimah, in a speech to the Westminster Employment Forum in London, actually signal a genuine intent to make things better by thinking differently?

Mr Gyimah would like to see all children have “the information, exposure and support to make the right choices and to fulfil their potential” and presumably for them to dream, aspire and be inspired. Importantly, he also said this process should start before children reach secondary school, thereby allowing the children to switch themselves on before the grown-ups switch them off.

Enabling children to write their own narrative of the possible is powerful stuff – it answers "why" questions and gives purposes. The realisation that learning is a satellite navigation system to better places in life is a eureka moment: "Now I understand why…!" is a connection between what is taught in school and an awareness of what the real world might hold.

'Careers awareness'

I like "awareness" and in this context "careers awareness". I much prefer it to "careers education". The latter feels "tick-boxy", and puts the fear of some sort of testing into me, whereas awareness is something you can develop yourself, supported by others. Like confidence really. For this process to ideally start at an early age is of course a no-brainer.

Following Mr Gyimah’s statement of intent it surely now falls to us all to seize the initiative and develop this kind of "careers awareness" into our primary curriculum. To empower children to become aware by learning for themselves, by being curious, by asking, by listening, by discovering, by getting it wrong and developing the resilience to eventually get it better, by experiencing the world of work and engagement, by leading, by raising their own bars. There is a real chance to get this right but only if – to quote my good friend Carlina Rinaldi, professor of pedagogy at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia – we "trust the children".

The excellent work of the newly established Careers and Enterprise Company and, of course, Young Enterprise should be built on and extended. Combined with a tangible will to do things differently and better found in a good number of enlightened representatives from the business world, this is a fertile basis to move into a direction that redefines how we think about education and the world of work.

Policymakers need to come out of the box, deinstitutionalise their approach, be consistent and focus long-term on the child. With educators they will need to move their thinking from "outstanding schools" to schools that are outstanding for children, and educators need to move from teaching to facilitating learning and getting to know their children better. In ‘careers awareness’ terms, the word that becomes more important than any is "appropriate" – it is not the destination that matters but its appropriateness to the individual. Our joint accountability lies with the children and their futures.

Let children be Sherlock Holmes, be curious, investigate, detect, deduct, conclude and enjoy. “Children can only aspire to what they know exists…” – elementary, my dear Gyimah. You might just be on to something.

Dr Ger Graus is director of education and partnerships at KidZania UK

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