What do you want to be when you’re older?

Written by: Suzanne O’Connell | Published:
Image: Adobe Stock

The importance of careers education and breaking down gender stereotypes at primary age is increasingly recognised. After the publication of a new report, Suzanne O’Connell looks at some best practice examples

In answering the question above, how many teachers still expect no more from primary-age children than dreams of being a footballer or perhaps these days a famous YouTuber? However, the importance and impact of effective careers education at primary school is increasingly recognised.

The Department for Education (DfE) is committing to the delivery of careers education in primary schools with £2 million of funding. This is being spent through its Careers & Enterprise Company and is aimed at developing and extending career-related learning in primary schools. Organisations are being asked to bid for the money and the successful initiatives will be announced later this year.

Meanwhile, last month, the report More than a job’s worth was published by the think-tank LKMco. It suggests that schools should be involved in broadening pupils’ career horizons and exposing pupils to a range of options – from the early years onwards.

Commissioned by Founders4Schools – a charity that helps educators to invite business leaders for encounters with their students – the report also highlights some inadequacies in provision and the continued risk of pupils reverting to stereotypical views of common career paths.

However, the majority of primary schools are already committed to some form of careers education according to existing research. The DfE’s school “snapshot” research, published in September 2018, asked primary school leaders about their provision and only four per cent indicated that they do not provide any careers education to their pupils.

In most cases the research found that careers education was delivered through PSHE (87 per cent) and through topic work (84 per cent). Three per cent of respondents even mentioned that they had university or college visits and provided career workshops. Enterprise activities were also a popular alternative with 77 per cent of schools offering these and 61 per cent having talks from employers and/or employees.

Real-life experience, dispelling stereotypes

Perhaps what is particularly important at primary school age is that pupils are introduced to the range of potential careers and are encouraged to see beyond the gender stereotypes.

The charity Education and Employers has long-supported the importance of primary careers education via its Primary Futures initiative. Schemes such as Primary Futures, are already linking primary schools with the workplace, helping to break-down gender stereotypes and to develop a broader understanding of the world of work.

The scheme brings primary schools together with volunteers representing a range of careers who will come into schools to talk to children about their jobs. Schools can sign up to contact people who are ready to volunteer in the area where they are located.

Similarly, Karen Ames and her company Open Doors2 have introduced thousands of children to different workplaces and career opportunities through its My World project.

This project takes a class of year 6 primary school children out of school and into the world of local businesses. It introduces the children to some of the options available in their own local area and aims to increase aspirations while also raising self-esteem and breaking down barriers. Over a period of six weeks, the children visit different workplaces, meet the staff, have hands-on opportunities and see how the businesses operate. The project ends with a graduation ceremony during which the children celebrate their work in front of an audience. Ms Ames has seen the positive way in which children respond to these glimpses of the workplace and the excitement which seeing a job on the ground can generate.

“The children love learning about the different jobs and seeing them in action,” explained Ms Ames. “It is crucial that children are provided with learning opportunities outside of the classroom.”

The tenets of good careers education

The report More than a job’s worth suggests that good careers education for young people should be based upon:

  • Universality – it should be available to all.
  • Authenticity – experiencing work that reflects the realities of day-to-day employment.
  • Progression – it should build on prior learning and form “a coherent journey”.
  • More is more – there should be a range of different interventions available and young people should be able to experience a number of events.
  • Open-mindedness – engaging with a range of ideas that open up options.

It is not just a case of careers education helping children to recognise the possibilities and what a work setting might look like. It can also be responsible for developing young people’s social and non-cognitive skills and, through projects such as My World, raising self-esteem and developing resilience.

More than a job’s worth calls for careers education to begin as soon as children start school. The report provides a range of advice for those primary schools that are keen to make careers education a core part of their provision.

It recommends that a senior leader should be appointed to take responsibility for the subject. They should ensure careers education is sequenced in an age-appropriate way and highlight how careers education can support the setting’s work towards other priorities, such as academic, social and personal development and inspection performance.

Curriculum leaders and middle leaders should work with their teams to identify opportunities to include career-focused learning in their lessons. For example, by indicating the benefits of certain subjects and areas of learning and the purpose they have in society. Older pupils in particular may question the value of some of their lessons and be more motivated if they can see the relevance of what they are learning.

Working with parents is considered to be an important part of this as well. It is recommended that from the beginning of primary school, parents should be invited into settings to hear careers talks with their children or to talk about their own careers.

Schools should also be aware of the labour market locally and the opportunities that may be available to students in the future. However, the report also advises that schools should keep an “open mind about where pupils might end up, and the intrinsic as well as the instrumental value of education”.

Suggested activities

The report goes further than many in identifying age-related activities that might be applied throughout the primary years. These consist of:

  • Role-play in pre-school (ages two to four).
  • Family assemblies for the early years and infants (ages two to seven).
  • Discussing parents jobs in infants and juniors (ages five to 11).
  • Jobs corners from pre-school to older juniors (ages two to 11).
  • Visits from external speakers in infants and juniors (ages five to 11).
  • Linking classroom learning to the outside world from pre-school to older juniors (ages two to 11).
  • Off-site visits in infants and juniors (ages five to 11).
  • Enterprise activities and competitions in juniors (ages eight to 11).

Elsewhere, personal, social and emotional skills are often the skills most valued by employers and can be transferred between different job roles. Skills such as communication, team-work and leadership can be built into lessons and the link made between these and the world of work. Pupils should be encouraged to self-reflect and explore ideas.

The report also offers guidance for external speakers about what appeals most to primary children. It advises that the best sessions:

  • Make good use of stories.
  • Include activities that pupils could take part in.
  • Are when presentations are kept short.

Smaller workshops were found to be particularly useful by primary-age pupils. The children got more out of these sessions if they had time to think of questions to ask and reflect on beforehand.

Career-related learning should also challenge stereotypes and during the later primary years should explore specific industries and roles in greater depth. A number of useful case studies are included in the report and it also provides further useful ideas for those responsible for careers education.

  • Suzanne O’Connell is a freelance education writer and a former primary school headteacher.

Further information & resources


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