Pupils do better at school when they have clear ideas about what they want to do afterwards - irrespective of which school they attend or their social background. But almost a third have no future plans and they are likely to be the ones who find school boring.
Careers Scotland believes research it has commissioned proves that there is a significant link between career goals and pupil performance, and perhaps even school performance. It wants more recognition for the role of careers in the Executive's inclusion and improvement agendas.
Vivienne Brown, head of career planning at the organisation, said it was "disappointing" to find that, of the 1,500 pupils from S3-S6 in the study, 28 per cent have no clear goals. This is 55,000 pupils if it is representative of the school population as a whole. On the other hand, 138,000 do have clear goals and Ms Brown says a key finding is that they are in all types of school and from all kinds of background. "It is not a class issue and it is not academically-related either, since some pupils with good qualifications have no clear goals," she added.
According to the report from human resource consultants Inter-Ed, published today (Friday): "Regardless of whether pupils attend a top 50 per cent performing school in Scotland in terms of Higher attainment, or a bottom 50 per cent school, those with clear goals have higher levels of attainment than those without."
The report suggests that one explanation is that pupils with goals are able to link the relevance of school work to life outside. "Pupils who find school boring are generally unable to link the content of the subjects they are taught to life beyond school. Those who find school boring are most likely to define their life in general as boring," it states.
"There is also some evidence that those with clear goals are more likely to believe they have some control over their future, whereas those without clear goals are more likely to include some people who believe they are victims of fate."
Ms Brown said the challenge for Careers Scotland now is to focus on overcoming the "weary Willie" syndrome among the 28 per cent group. "We are up against the 'what's for you won't go by you' fatalistic approach which can be such a pervasive part of our culture," she said.
But some clues to the way forward can be found among those with a more positive outlook: they are most likely to join organised out-of-school activities and there is some evidence that high achievers have part-time work.
Ms Brown stressed the important lesson for schools was in setting goals for their pupils' future, not just career goals. "At a time when people are having to make transitions at many stages in their working lives, career planning skills are more necessary than ever, encouraging people to be more proactive and career-agile."
Lifelong learning and lifetime career planning must go hand-in-hand, she said.
Careers Scotland now plans to step up a gear to get this key message across. "We need to raise the profile of career planning to convince teachers that taking half an hour out of class to spend time on it is not wasted but is time well invested," Ms Brown said.
The report acknowledges, however, that there are many factors influencing pupils' future intentions such as parents, popular culture and peer pressure.
Careers Scotland hopes the research, which is said to be the first of its kind, will drive home the importance of career guidance in helping the Executive deliver on its national priorities for education, as well as its policies on social justice and inclusion.
Ms Brown said the study had much wider implications for Scotland, which is shown to have many young people who are not taking up opportunities and are hence not fulfilling their potential.