The last few months have seen a sudden enthusiasm for careers education in primary schools. Of course, it is a simple and seductive idea.
But many teachers and parents have expressed their concerns that we risk making our children grow up too fast. They are understandably concerned about the dangers in directing children towards a particular career or job at a time when their aspirations should be wide-ranging and, in large part, without boundaries.
I share their concerns. We should not be providing careers advice in primary schools: instead we should focus on broadening horizons and raising aspirations, giving children a wide range of experiences including the world of work. It is about opening doors, showing children the vast range of possibilities and helping to keep their options open for as long as possible.
And there are a range of attributes, skills and behaviours that can be encouraged in this early stage of a child’s life that will leave them in the best possible position as they begin their transitions to secondary education and to future life.
There is often alarm, too, when people hear or read the word ‘careers’ in the same sentence as primary schools. In my opinion, the focus for primary schools shouldn’t be on ‘careers advice’ but on what I refer to as ‘career-related learning'.
Teachers would tend to agree. Our recent survey, in partnership with Tes and the NAHT headteachers' union, found that the majority of teachers believe that children should be learning about the world of work and different jobs in their first years of primary school. Nearly half (47 per cent) believed this should start from age five and under and that linking learning to the real world helped increase motivation, broaden aspirations and challenge gender stereotypes.
Politicians, too, are on side. Robert Halfon MP, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee was spot on in saying in Tes recently: “The impact of early engagement can have a hugely positive impact on wider academic attainment, motivating and inspiring both children and their families, by helping them to see a future to which they can aspire and which feels achievable.”
Earlier this year we tried to explore this a little further by exploring who primary-aged children ideally want to become, and, what shapes (and often limits) their career aspirations and dreams for the future. Drawing the Future asked children aged 7 to 11 to draw a picture of the job they wanted to do when they grew up. More than 13,000 children took part in the UK and it was clear that, from a young age, many children had ideas about careers. Some 36 per cent of children from as young as seven years old, based their career aspirations on people they knew. For those who didn’t know anyone who did the job they drew, 45 per cent stated that TV, film and radio were the biggest factors influencing their choice.
Meanwhile, less than 1 per cent of children knew about a job from someone visiting their school. This has huge implications for social mobility, as children from poorer backgrounds may not have access to successful role models from the world of work and their aspirations are limited as a result.
All children, regardless of their background should get the chance to meet a wide range of people doing different jobs, in different sectors and at different levels – from apprentices to CEOs.
This is essential if we are to improve social mobility and gender and ethnic equality. It is vital we support children to challenge the perceptions they may have about certain jobs, and to better understand the evolving world they are growing up in while they are still in primary school.
While teachers appreciate the importance to children of career-related learning many say that the lack of time and availability of volunteers are preventing them doing more. The NAHT has taken a lead to tackle this and created Primary Futures in partnership with my charity, Education and Employers.
Emma Fieldhouse from South Parade Primary school in Wakefield explains why her school got involved: “It was amazing to see the children talking and listening to the volunteers, and each other, as they begin to make the link between what they do in school every day and the exciting world of the future where they will be the next scientists, teachers, politicians, vets”.
We must not rest until we see this kind of ambition running through all of our students in all of our primary schools.
Nick Chambers is the founder and chief executive officer of the charity Education and Employers. The charity runs Inspiring the Future and its Primary Futures and Inspiring Women programmes and undertakes research into the effectiveness of employer engagement