Lessons in signing on to the world of work

6th November 2009 at 00:00
A Saltcoats school has set up a scheme for pupils to learn more about job opportunities

Dykesmains Primary sits on the brow of a hill overlooking Saltcoats on the dramatic North Ayrshire coast. All too many of the houses it surveys are home to adults who have never worked, even before this recession, which means pupils are often bereft of any ambition or idea of employment opportunities. Ask them what they plan to do when they leave school and they reply, "Sign on".

For that reason, headteacher Nancy Robb set up a school World of Work scheme five years ago. Run over a term each year, it involves about six local people telling pupils about their jobs and answering their questions. The children write a "mock" application for one of the jobs and a member of Careers Scotland carries out an interview and gives feedback on how they did.

"We started very early on being involved in the enterprise programme, Determined to Succeed," says Miss Robb. "It became apparent that our children had no concept of the opportunities available to them. They were limited as to the kind of jobs they could do because employment is low and range of jobs small."

The most common jobs for women are as shop assistants; boys who leave school at 16 aspire to work at the slaughterhouse, which requires no formal qualifications.

The school recently received a glowing HMIE report, in which inspectors picked out the World of Work scheme as one of its examples of good practice.

Miss Robb and her staff work hard to raise pupils' confidence and self- esteem, but she was concerned that after they left primary, they got "lost in the system". Her original vision was to offer a careers service to the primary pupils and extend it to their parents on a Saturday morning, but she "hit a brick wall", as she put it, when it came to the parents. "People didn't see primary schools as the place to start this kind of thinking."

Parents have been invited to the careers sessions for the children, but over five years, only four turned up. The children's enthusiasm, however, makes up for their parents' lack of it.

Pupils from P4-7 listen to the presentations and fill out an evaluation sheet. The presenters are primed by the school beforehand about the kind of questions to expect. They are also encouraged to talk not so much about the academic qualifications needed, but personal attributes.

The P6-7s are asked to select one of the jobs they have heard about and write an application for it. Careers Scotland staff or members of the council's personnel department come into the school, interview them and give feedback.

Miss Robb would have liked pupils to receive a "taster" of the job they picked, by spending some time in the workplace, but health and safety regulations prevent that.

Many of the presenters have made a real impact, particularly a veterinary nurse (see panel) and a community youth worker. And it doesn't sound as if they'll forget the two female engineers from British Aerospace who explained that they tested the strength of aeroplane propellers by throwing frozen turkeys at them.

Miss Robb believes the World of Work scheme is a good one, but she would like secondary schools to build more on its ideas, so it can have a lasting impact. She would also like to change outside perceptions. The local Rotary Club, for instance, felt the place for careers advice was in secondary, rather than primary, and therefore did not offer the support she would have liked.

"The people who do come in are very impressed," she says, "especially by the fact that children of that age have opinions and voices."


Carol Johnstone, a veterinary nurse who has two children at Dykesmains, was a favourite with pupils when she did a careers presentation last year. She took in her dog, Simba, a docile and friendly golden retriever, to demonstrate some areas of her work. Her props included X-rays and a drip.

"Even now, when I pick my children up, the kids ask after Simba and say, `I'd really like to do your job'."

When the children were asked to evaluate the presentations they received, they said of Mrs Johnstone:

- "She's a funny, confident person."

- "She gave the best speech."

- "She brought in a dog and X-ray results for a cat."

- "She made it so interesting that I want her job."

Karen Strachan, who runs a florist's shop, Stems and Gems, was impressed by the children's attentiveness and questioning. She showed a clip of where flowers came from and how wholesalers in Holland distribute them to other countries.

"Some thought we just grew them out the back of the shop and cut them," she says.

"I'm not sure if any of the children want to do something in floristry as a result of my talk, but they were genuinely interested."

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