As educators, aren’t we, in some part, failing those students who make the wrong choice of subjects at university or, indeed, those who regret their choices?

Posted on: 27 Jan 2017

Nigel Lashbrook, Headmaster at Oakham School, argues that careers services need to be an integral part of the curriculum, and not a 'bolt-on', in order to reduce the number of students who are regretting their chosen career path.

I’m afraid that we are becoming numb to numbers. Seemingly each day we read yet another set of statistics that indicates failure within our education system.

However, out of the many statistics heralded by our newspapers or newsfeeds, shouldn’t last week’s news from The Student Room, reported in The Telegraph, stimulate some debate?

The article outlined that 20% of students enrolled at university would have chosen differently if they were given a second chance.

Although we are not ‘tested’, nor ranked on it, surely one of our key roles, as educators, is to help all students to know what doors, or careers, are open to them in the world that awaits them? Thereby helping them to make the right, informed choices and decisions about their futures. As educators, aren’t we, in some part, failing those students who make the wrong choice of subjects at university or, indeed, those who regret their further education choices, or the career path they’ve chosen?

Of course it’s untenable to suggest that 100% of students make the right decisions – but surely 20% seems to be just too high? Especially when we really think for a moment about what this actually means. That these students, all just starting out on their career journey, have, from the very beginning, made a wrong turn. The cost of this decision is potentially huge – not only the financial implications of paying for a university course that they regret, but the cost (of money, time and effort) to then try to get on to the path that they really want to follow.

So, how can we reduce the number of students who are making wrong career choices?

Firstly, we all need to collectively move away from the notion that Careers is something that can be ‘done’ in a distinct period of time. Careers services have, in too many instances, been reduced to key events such as ‘Careers Week’. Surely this is a misnomer – how can we expect students to make major life decisions after a week of activities? Of course, it’s an excellent event in itself, as it encourages students to focus their attention on Careers, but it should be seen as a starting point, or a call to action – rather than a ‘solution’. Instead we need to view Careers as an integral part of the education we offer (not a ‘bolt on’) – and build up layers of information and skills throughout a child’s education.

Secondly, we need to address exactly how we provide students with good access to the right Careers information. Especially given that many of the students in the survey cited a lack of research as the reason they’ve ended up studying a course they regret, or at a university that’s not right for them. How can we help students to really understand and decide exactly which careers interest them, or suit their skills and aptitudes? How can we provide guidance and resources to help them to come to an informed decision about how best to move into this career – what university course they should take or which apprenticeship to apply for? Aside from resources, the key here is contact time with students. Unfortunately, Careers has, in some schools, become marginalised or minimised – perhaps due to timetable constraints or a lack of funding. It is also, all too often, outsourced. Meaning that providers give careers advice to pupils who they don’t know, and pupils must trust and be guided by people they meet infrequently. In too many other schools, Careers has also increasingly become a tick-box exercise; reduced to a series of aptitude questionnaires that provide career ‘solutions’, rather than being a great starting point for a series of detailed one-to-one discussions. I appreciate that we are very fortunate at Oakham to have the resources to be able to offer this level of support (we have an in-house team, led by a full-time Head of Careers). Ideally all schools need the resources and provision in place to provide Careers support to all students – most particularly those students who need (due to naturally varying levels of maturity and self-discipline) more encouragement.

Finally, schools need to go beyond just administering information about careers to developing career skills. This should include broader life skills – such as awareness and interest in the world around them (and where they see themselves fitting), understanding of self (and the ability to match this to career options), and openness to change (which is particularly vital given the constantly evolving job market). Perhaps most importantly, one of the greatest career skills we could give our students is the ability to make their own decisions. Especially given that 1 in 8 students in the survey claimed that pressure from parents, teachers and peers had influenced their choice of institution. Decision-making isn’t something that can be ‘done’ or ‘covered’ in Careers Week. Nor is it the sole responsibility of the Careers Department. Skills such as these need to be actively woven and embedded into a child’s education – so that future generations of students won’t regret their life choices, before they’ve really begun to live their life.


About Nigel Lashbrook

Nigel Lashbrook is Headmaster at Oakham School a co-educational boarding and day school in Rutland.