When should careers education begin?

Posted on: 08 Feb 2019
Posted by: Matthew Burke

Matthew Burke, head at Westbury House School, argues that careers education should begin as early as possible so children can begin to see links in the areas they are studying.

Having worked in all through schools and, more recently, senior schools I read with interest recent news articles that discussed careers education at primary age. At the beginning of this term I took on the role of interim head at Westbury House School, a prep school in New Malden. When I looked at the school calendar, I was delighted but also surprised to see that in the third week of term there was a careers week.

I am not sure why this surprised me but a lot of attention in careers provision has focused on senior schools in recent years – selecting the right subjects at GCSE and A-level, securing enough and relevant work experience, exploring all options post A-level and completing the various questionnaires that can highlight possible career routes for everyone. The theme we have focused on in our careers week is options – making the right choice at the right time. Whilst this can extend beyond careers, I believe that if the children get used to making options, and hopefully the right options, when it comes to selecting a career they are so used to making decisions they will have opted for the right subjects, opted for the right course to study and opted to join the right organisation for them to work for. This is in the same way that we, as heads, hopefully make the right decision over which schools we lead.

But, if we stop and think about it, it is necessary for conversations about careers to begin at an earlier age. All schools set high expectations of their pupils and rightly so but from a careers point of view this should also extend to them dreaming about what job or vocation they would like to spend their lives working in. At Westbury House School we had talks, among others, on law, medicine, charities, criminal psychology and the pharmaceutical industry. Thanks to the engagement of our parents and, just by watching the children in these presentations, it was clear they were carefully considering each career to see how it fitted with their interests.

Even at this early age the children have an idea of what they like and what they do not like. They have subjects they enjoy and others they do because they must. Some love the opportunity to work as a team and others have a preference to working alone. Discussing career options with children can be transforming.

It is important to stress to children that there is usually more than one route that can be taken to reach a particular career path or destination. I remember talking at a sixth form open evening last year and informing the students and their parents that they might well have four or five different careers during their working lives and some of those jobs may very well not be in existence yet. Whilst there may be some truth in the Little Britain sketch, when a computer states that robots will take every job opportunity, we must ensure that through our conversations with children they are inspired to think big and believe that if they put their mind to something it can be achieved. Careers education is about keeping doors open, getting to know the child as an individual.

At prep school, children are still getting to know who they are, where their strengths lie and what they are passionate about. It is therefore vital that they can discuss careers but, on top of that, have as many opportunities both inside and outside the classroom. You never know what experience could trigger a lifelong passion.

As educators it is our role to search for, nurture and develop talent in both the children in front of us as well as among the staff we have responsibility for. We are in the business of enabling each of those in our care to be the best that they can be. We must look at each child an individual rather than creating a fixed mould of pupil from the school.

So when should careers education begin? As early as is possible and practical, so that children can begin to see links in areas they are studying. This is also the reason for a broad and balanced curriculum and, as educators, it is our job to enable children to be who they want to be.

About Matthew Burke

Matthew Burke is head at Westbury House School in Surrey.