Careers education for primary pupils

Written by: HTU | Published:

It is becoming more common for primary schools to focus on pupils’ career aspirations and to begin preparing them for the world of work. Suzanne O’Connell reports

From 9am to 5pm, five days a week and without fixed term dates or a long summer holiday, studio schools are introducing 14-year-olds to the timetable of the workplace. Students have their own personal coach and spend at least four hours a week with employers who work closely with the school. By 16 this has increased to two days a week.

The curriculum is different too. One of the purposes of the studio school is not only to increase pupils’ employability but their engagement in education. The CREATE framework (Communication, Relating to others, Enterprise, Applied skills, Thinking skills and Emotional Intelligence) emphasises life-skills and is taught through multi-disciplinary projects. These projects are work-linked, practical and lead to a tangible outcome.

Helen Mason, project director of the Southampton Studio School, is aware of the similarities of their curriculum to that of primary schools. She describes one of their projects which involves students planning the opening of a new haulage depot: “It covers core subjects such as maths and English but also geography and IT. It’s not like the usual secondary school single subject silo.”

Studio schools enable young people to recognise the work opportunities that there are in their locality. With the direct involvement of local employers and a curriculum founded in work-based projects, they put learning firmly in its context. But at 14-years-old is it already too late for some of these young people? New research suggests that aspirations at seven can have an impact on the way in which pupils develop.

I want to be…

The research report, Do Primary School Children’s Career Aspirations Matter? (Flouri et al) suggests that there is a link between family poverty, career aspirations, and emotional and behavioural problems.

Although there is a clear association between these factors, there is also great variability in outcomes. Some children show more resilience than others and it was this and its potential link to aspiration that the researchers studied.

Children were asked to write down what they would like to be when they grew up. Their responses were coded for status, from managers and senior officials to elementary occupations. Poverty was determined by identifying families whose income was 60 per cent or below that of the UK national median household.

Emotional and behavioural problems were measured using the Strengths and Difficulties Questionnaire (Goodman, 1997). Using this data, the researchers found that those children living in families below the poverty line who had higher careers aspirations were less likely to have behavioural problems.

The lack of early aspirations might not be working in isolation. The report suggests that there might be a cluster of variables that accompany it. Children without aspiration might also carry a sense of hopelessness or low self-belief that contributes to their behaviour. The research team recognises that there is scope here for further investigation.

Not all the studies on this subject have come to the same conclusions as Professor Flouri and her team. Some researchers have found that there can be a negative link between high aspirations where those exceed their educational attainment. Croll (2008) and Yates et al (2011) found that “over-ambitious” adolescents from manual backgrounds were much less likely than their peers from professional, managerial and technical backgrounds to achieve high status occupations. They were also more likely to become NEET by the age of 18.

Flouri et al suggest that differences in developmental stage, the use of emotional and behavioural outcomes rather than occupational ones and different measures used for disadvantage, could all have led to the variant results. The cohort used in Professor Flouri’s research will be revisited at age 11 and this will provide opportunity to see what impact a later developmental stage might have. If they are right and aspirations at age seven are significant should we be waiting until the adolescent years to introduce children to the possibilities of the workplace?

Aspirations in Manchester

A project based in Manchester is already becoming aware of the need to intervene early. The Strong Mums programme aims to engage young women in the Longbridge and Shaw Heath areas of the city, as well as further afield in Knutsford in Cheshire. In January 2012 it was making a difference to some families within the communities there.

Strong Mums incorporates a series of workshops to help develop self-awareness and uses practical techniques to enhance personal relationships. Its organisers recognised the difficulties in getting their target group on traditional literacy and numeracy courses and devised the programme as a first step to help open up discussion around some of the issues this group of women were facing. Although the programme was shown to make a big difference to those taking part, the organisers realised that they were dealing with issues when it was almost too late.

“What these women needed was opportunity to raise their aspirations and improve their self-esteem at a much younger age,” explained co-coordinator, Karen Ames. The result has been the creation of World Wide Young Women, a project aimed at girls in year nine and now My World, which targets year 6 primary pupils.

Ms Ames added: “We felt that the earlier we began raising aspirations and confidence the more likely it would be to have a long-term impact.”

The project has been driven by input from sponsors. Bruntwood, Manchester Airport and Tatton Park all contributed to the project.

Ms Ames explained: “One of our main aims is to introduce pupils to the world of work. We want to inspire them to achieve their potential, to recognise the opportunities that there are out there. Some of these children come from third generation unemployed.”

The project takes the pupils out of school to visit the sponsors’ workplace. They are introduced to employees who tell them their own stories about working life and finally they present their project in the Concorde Hangar at Manchester Airport.

The project does not just focus on working life. Ms Ames continued: “It’s also about raising self-esteem, thinking around values, building teams and how to make a presentation. Many of the young people taking part were very hesitant about speaking out in front of others. You wouldn’t have recognised some of them when it came to the final presentation at the graduation ceremony.”

Aspirations in York

Giving a taster of the world of work is happening in York too. The charity York Cares has arranged for employees from 11 different companies to visit eight primary schools in the city. The project has two main purposes. First, to help link real-life and learning, but also it is designed to encourage employees to become involved with York Children’s University.

The year groups taking part are not restricted and pupils throughout the participating schools are provided with tasters of different work environments. York Racecourse, the University of York, the NHS, Northern Rail and Yorkshire Bank are just some of those supporting the scheme.

York Children’s University focuses on York’s most deprived communities and since it started in April 2009 has engaged with more than 886 children in employer-led modules. For example, Food and Hospitality with York Mariott Hotel includes a “Come dine with me” activity where the children cook alongside chief executives.

The “Tracks and Trains” module (with Network Rail) prepares children to be trainee signallers and “Retail” (with Tescos) engages pupils in understanding more about the food retail industry.

Barbara McGowan, senior fellow for the National Institute for Careers Education and Counselling, said: “It’s not about helping children to think about whether this is what they want to do when they grow up, it is purely stimulus activity enabling them to encounter broader horizons and generate richer thinking about what the world of work can offer.”

The implications

Primary schools already recognise the importance of PSHE and the need to develop pupils’ self-esteem. Creating a culture of high expectations for disadvantaged pupils has never been more prominent on the agenda and schools serving these catchments might be particularly interested in the implications for their practice.

However, it might benefit all schools to address the issue of low aspiration and ingrained cynicism occupying at least some pockets of their communities.

Established projects like My World and those of York Children’s University can challenge the negative perceptions of work and the future that even very young children are already absorbing.

If the research has got it right, then encouraging realistic career aspirations could be an important step towards securing pupils’ engagement and help them to manage their behaviour too.

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

Further information

• Do Primary School Children’s Career Aspirations Matter? The relationship between family poverty, careers aspiration, and emotional and behavioural problems. Flouri, E and Panourgia, C. (2012).

• “Strong Mums” is a partnership between Open Doors2 Ltd, Occupositive, Cheshire East Lifelong Learning and Longbridge & Shaw Heath (Knutsford) Business Support Group.

• Occupational Choice, Socio-economic Status and Educational Attainment, Croll, P. (2008).

• Early Occupational Aspirations and NEETs, Yates, S et al (2011).

• For more primary education best practice and advisory articles from Headteacher Update, click here.

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