A child’s early years are very important, a time when behaviors, viewpoints and personalities are developed. Research from Education Employers backed this up with data. In the context of jobs, it reports that many of the preconceptions about future careers are already formed, based on stereotypes regarding gender, ethnicity, and social background, by the time they’re seven years old. What’s more, they largely stay the same until children reach 17.
This age bracket is important. It’s when they’re being asked to make exam subject choices and have the chance to develop vital skills for the future with their extra curricular activities. If a child decides to drop a certain subject or take up another based on preconceived notions of what’s possible, they could be missing out on finding something they love and, importantly, excel at.
Education Employers argues for the need to start career-related learning early. This is part of wider careers-based conversations currently ongoing in the sector. Back in September, Girls’ Schools Association president Samantha Price called for a post-Covid reform, encouraging schools to “acknowledge that a traditional university degree is not the only route for our brightest and best, whatever their background.”
Cleary, there’s a thirst for change and I echo this sentiment. Starting in Year 7, I work with the girls at Loughborough High School to help them see beyond the stereotypical views that might have formed when they were younger.
Lead by example
Education Employers also highlighted the impact that good role models can have when shaping children’s future ambitions. Its Starting Early report stated that less than one per cent knew about a job from someone visiting their school. Rather, they were influenced by their echo chamber of family, friends and the media.
This sense of living up to expectations can cause a lot of pressure for children and young people. Indeed, stress or anxiety creates an environment that’s detrimental to making important decisions, such as study or career choice. That’s why I supplemented my professional careers training by becoming a mental health first aider. This has helped me to recognise problems affecting decision making such as low self-esteem, perceived barriers and fear of failure.
“I supplemented my professional careers training by becoming a mental health first aider.”
At Loughborough High School, we try to introduce our pupils to as many professionals as possible. For example, we recently invited space scientist Maggie Aderin-Pocock MBE and aerospace medicine researcher Lauren Church to speak at a special space themed day. This term, we are planning a healthcare event, with the aim of showcasing a wider range of roles within the NHS than the girls often consider. Similarly, we will be highlighting various options available to those interested in creative careers allowing them to explore the value of arts subjects in the workplace.
Paint the full picture
To break the stereotypes, I make sure that the girls I speak with get a full understanding of all the options available to them, and the outcomes of each one.
Naturally, some careers do require a degree to enter them. But that’s not the only way. Apprenticeships have developed hugely in recent years, and it is important to explore the structures of different forms of further education so that pupils can make up their own mind on what suits them best. Although a parent might want their child to go to Oxbridge, will they thrive there? Again, this boils down to the girls developing the understanding of different career paths so they have confidence in their own decisions.
“Although a parent might want their child to go to Oxbridge, will they thrive there?”
Loughborough High School has a fantastic range of after-school and lunch clubs that provides opportunities for our pupils to try new things and understand what they love and are good at. When working as a university careers adviser, I met a number of young people who had not developed their hobbies and interests. Often, they were the ones knocking on my door once they’d graduated, to figure out the next step. After role models, allowing children to learn more about themselves and gain skills through activities is incredibly beneficial when it comes to the time they need to make decisions about their future.
It may even spark an entrepreneurial spirit in them. Could that hobby become a product or service that they could sell? The rise of online marketplaces such as Etsy has certainly opened new doors to other avenues of income for students I speak to. While for some, this type of work may remain a “side-hustle”, for others, freelancing or setting up their own business may be their dream or goal.
Wider cultural change
Even with these initiatives in place, it’s the responsibility of each school to encourage pupils to challenge their thinking in order to really change perceptions of certain careers. At Loughborough High School, for example, our PHSE lessons also cover topics such as understanding biases and work values, career demand, and the changing world of work. This is backed up with a 1:1 guidance appointment, work experience, and interaction with various professionals, including our Black Alumni group.
“It’s important that our students hear the stories of alumni, so that they build confidence in their own decisions.”
Inviting alumni back to the school to share their experience is hugely impactful. More often than not, they have changed their route of training and have had blips along the way to reaching their current levels of success. It’s important that our students hear these stories, so that they build confidence in their own decisions, and are resilient if plans don’t work out or if they decide that an alternative career would bring greater fulfillment. Our own head, Fiona Miles, is an excellent role model for this since she has changed career path.
Every day there are new opportunities being created in the professional world. Careers education previously has been heavily focused on getting the highest percentage of students into universities. To move forward, we need to consider other very viable options, and start sooner. By doing this we will build a strong, confident generation of women who have the resilience and self-assurance needed to take their right next steps, with pride.