Careers provision – Start early and aim high

illustration of teenager holding a document and looking puzzled in front of a crossroads sign with multiple arrows

Schools shouldn’t shy away from talking to Y7s about the possibilities of further education, argues Matthew Burton

Matthew Burton
by Matthew Burton

In whichever phase of learning we work, we need to keep an eye on preparing for the future.

We must do what we can so that the big, wide, bounteous and brilliant world out there – which, let’s face it, only gets more complex with every passing year – makes sense to the young people we’re working with.

As the world continues to evolve, the careers our young people go on to enter will no longer fit the stereotypical boxes they perhaps once did. With technological advances and remote working driving huge, society-wide changes, industries once considered inaccessible for people 20 years ago now hold the potential for genuine career possibilities.

We’ll always need doctors, solicitors, teachers, police officers and many other ‘traditional’ jobs, of course, but there’s more. Lots more! And yet, getting those messages out about the amazing opportunities to be had isn’t easy.

Here, then, are five pointers to help you ensure that from the very start of secondary school, students can be made aware just how broad and diverse their future career choices really are…

1. Talk about it early

Students might not need to be a pilot or a cheesemaker before reaching the end of Y7, but the language of careers should be in the air. Put aspirational goals at the forefront of conversations with young people, and be aware that your language concerning the future shouldn’t be fearful; it should be full of excitement.

2. Everything’s a piece of the jigsaw

Whether it’s simply holding a door for someone, saying ‘thank you’ or greeting school visitors, everything students do in secondary school is a rehearsal of sorts for the ‘big wide world’.

Regardless of what a student’s main career goals are – beautician? Molecular biologist? Treading the boards of London’s West End? – young people need to better understand how those important soft skills they’re practising away from the classroom may well contribute to achieving that eventual goal.

3. Meet and greet

Speaking to young people about the wonderful world of careers is one thing, but quite another for that messaging to come from employees currently pursuing careers of their own. Get your students out and visiting various workplaces where they can meet employees – hospitals, universities, retail offices, beauty salons. Failing that, persuade industry representatives to come in and give talks to the next generation.

4. Push them on…

Aspirations among students for high quality careers tend to be accompanied by ambition within a school’s careers offer. That’s why there’s nothing wrong with talking about universities and routes into FE and HE, and why it’s important to dispel myths and mysteries around words like ‘apprentice’, ‘degree’, ‘undergraduate’ and ‘doctorate’.

Many of the most disadvantaged young people we work with will never have been told what universities and other types of further study are actually like, but they should know that there isn’t a ceiling awaiting. If they want to pursue a career requiring a degree or other specific qualification, talk to them and show them what attaining this might look like.

They might initially think they’ve taken a wrong turn to Hogwarts as they pull up to the gates of the local university, but those foundational building blocks of what could be a wonderful career will be far stronger when they possess knowledge of the domain they’re aiming for.

5. …but remember that there’s no pressure

That being said, let’s not overdo it. At KS3 children need to be allowed to be children. For now, many of the skills, knowledge and qualities they’ll need in future are incumbent upon them simply being at school – meeting new people, making friends, and getting to grips with their daily routines.

Overburdening them at such a young age with too much can be counterproductive. The next generation need to be knowledgeable, kind, considerate, hard-working and determined – which is precisely what their school should help them become.

Matthew Burton (@MatthewCBurton) is headteacher at Thornhill Community Academy and a supporter of 4Schools – Channel 4’s secondary schools initiative to bring to life the breadth of careers in the creative sector; for more information, visit

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