At parties or networking events, when introducing myself as a careers teacher, I’ve got used to people thinking I teach Korean and getting rather confused when I correct them.
“Careers! But what do you actually teach?” they respond. It’s an understandable confusion. I left senior school in 1987, and back then ‘careers education’ consisted of five minutes with the geography teacher who, as I didn’t know what I wanted to do, said go and be a hairdresser. Random.
Confusion persists when we consider the national picture for careers education. Schools have a statutory duty to provide independent advice and guidance from Year 8, but are given no specific funding to do it.
Ofsted, government and the educational Twitteratti are taking an increasing interest in careers provision but nationally, it’s described as ‘patchy’.
Employers claim that school leavers are not equipped with the skills they need for the modern workplace and yet those same spokespeople say they do not know what the jobs of even the near future will look like - the robots are coming and we’re all doomed.
Teachers will often confuse careers education with alternative provision; a vocational pathway for those struggling academically, often caricatured as an NVQ in nail art. The perception is that able pupils in the upper sets do not need careers education beyond some help with their UCAS personal statement. This is wrong-headed.
A taste of reality
So why does the current generation of pupils need taught careers provision when five minutes with the geography teacher was good enough for us? In most ways teenagers are no different now from how they’ve ever been. But in other ways they are – and one of those is that they don’t have jobs.
When I was in the old money equivalent of Year 9, I and perhaps half my year group had jobs. Nothing spectacular – paper rounds, Saturday work in shops, helping at our parents’ businesses, on market stalls, butcher’s shops etc.
If someone didn’t a job it was because they were busy at the weekends with scouts, cadets, church groups or some kind of community activity.
Interactions with adults who were not our parents or their friends and not our teachers was normal. We matured because we gained experiences of the real world; this is no longer the case.
Participation in extracurricular organisations has declined significantly and at least some of the jobs teenagers did are now considered inappropriate under health and safety legislation.
As a consequence teenagers today are, on the whole, less worldly than their parents’ generation. The ability to talk to anyone all over the world via the internet has not proven a good replacement for getting out into the world and finding out what you’re made of.
The first thing I ask my new Year 9s each September is did they know they are old enough to get a job and apply for a National Insurance number? So far I have had nothing but blank looks in response.
It is a problem if all pupils know is their GSCE curriculum, and especially so if they’re aiming for top universities where their grades are assumed and the interview is more concerned with their life experiences, extracurricular activities and broader interests.
For some, the notion of giving curriculum time to careers education represents a worrying move away from the importance of subject knowledge. This is seeing things the wrong way around.
Careers education starts with subject knowledge – it stems from a pupil’s love for an academic subject. Careers is what makes the link between subject knowledge and the world; it shows pupils the possibilities of where that subject knowledge can take them.
When I started teaching, my mentor described the purpose of education to me as producing pupils who have an understanding of the world and of what it means to be human, who are able to enter into conversations about the future direction of society, and who take the responsibility to do so seriously.
In this sense, what is more human than work?
We spend around 55% of our lives working. For pupils to be successful citizens they need to be given the space to explore, plan and develop a work ethic.
Jason Smith is careers lead at East London Science School, a free school in Bromley-by-Bow, East London. He is convenor of the annual ‘Choosing Knowledge’ education conference which takes place each February (more details and related articles from ELSS teachers on the Principal’s blog davidperks.com). Jason tweets at @jasonsmith17.
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