C is for career



Since the release of Quality, Choice and Aspiration – A Strategy for Young People’s Information, Advice and Guidance there has been a lot of debate in the media about the appropriate age to start careers education. This seems bizarre to me because I feel that learning about career is simply part of our normal educational and developmental growth. What is more it starts earlier than key stage two and continues throughout your entire life.


We might reductively describe careers education as being concerned with two main elements

  • Understanding yourself, your abilities and desires
  • Understanding the labour market and the opportunities within it

It is my belief that children are engaged in both of these pretty much from birth.


If we take the first element, that of understanding yourself, it is pretty clear that this is one of the main educational aims that children have. Working out what and who they like and how to get more of it is what children do. This drive to explore identity and find a place in the world drives children’s learning and provides a context within which adults interventions in their development can be meaningful. As a parent or an educator we are normally in the process of trying to expand children’s horizons.


“Try it, you might like it”


“But why do you like pink so much?”


At the same time as helping children to explore and understand the world, parents and educators are in the business of providing opportunities that develop actual or perceived aptitudes.


“He’s very good at football. Do you think that we should get him a coach?”


For children development is a process of self-realisation that can be supported through education of various kinds. The way in which an individual’s identity is constructed in these early years is likely to have profound implications for their personal journey through learning and career.


The second aspect of career education is rather more controversial. At what age should we start teaching about the labour market? Again my answer to this question would be that children begin to explore the labour market almost from birth. First they differentiate between individuals (Mummy, Daddy, Nanny, Grandad) before going on to work out that these are also social roles and that other children also possess Mummies etc. Rapidly other roles are added to this (police officer, shop keeper, doctor etc) along with the realisation that parents often go off to a place that is called “work”. This making sense of the world is essentially a process of building up labour market information and occupational profiles even if most of us would not usually describe it as such.

This process of gaining an understanding of the labour market is well supported by resources. My children watch a programme called Me Too which essentially provides information about a range of occupations through stories and song. When I was a child I watched Mr Benn which essentially fulfilled a similar function. Explaining to me that there were a range of occupations and giving insights into what they did (knights fight dragons etc). There are also loads of books that provide similar learning for children see for example Richard Scarry’s What do people do all day. I’d be interested in hearing about other resources that people have found that offer career learning for very young children.


Learning about the labour market is just part of learning about the world around you. To close this off to children is to fail in their education. So let’s make sure that career education is done well, that it is emancipatory and encourages the raising of aspirations and challenges to social and economic norms – but let’s also make sure that it is a lifelong process that supports learning and working lives from cradle to grave.      



  1. In the <a href="http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1222897/Pupils-aged-seven-careers-advice.html">Daily Mail</a>, Christine Blower, general secretary of the National Union of Teachers, is quoted as saying, ‘It is perfectly reasonable for children to think about what they might do in life, but what this absolutely must not do is predetermine what they might do before they even leave primary school.’ But isn’t that what’s happening anyway? According to Linda Gottfredson’s theory of Circumscription and Compromise, children aged 6-8 allocate occupations to gender categories and by 9-13 they are categorising them by social status and accessibility. If there is no professional input at these stages we are leaving everything in the hands of social determinism.Gottfredson even makes some recommendations for careers education in <a href="http://books.google.co.uk/books?hl=en&amp;lr=&amp;id=4IdbmX4pDpkC&amp;oi=fnd&amp;pg=PA71"><em>Career Development and Counseling: Putting Theory and Research to Work</em></a>.I used to love Mr Benn too. Might see if I can get it on DVD…

  2. Thanks for the link.I think that you are right. The outrage around this policy is based on a complete misrepresentation about what careers work actually aims to do. Rather depressing if Christine Blower is perpetuating this kind of stereotype.

  3. Great article Tris. I totally agree with your thoughts here. As a secondary school teacher I often found that by the time students reached us at 11, they had such set ideas about their abilities (or in their minds, lack of), that trying to open their eyes to opportunities in the labour market was really hard. I believe much of this stems from being told ???you are not academic???, or ???he is really good at maths..like me???, from a very young age. It???s difficult for me to comment on this, as I don???t have children, but I do wonder how many of these ???talents??? or ???weaknesses??? are just self fulfilling prophecies. The essential thing for any young person is instilling a sense of confidence and the right to choose. Many of the young people I worked with in widening participation just believed that certain things weren???t available to them. However a confident ???I can do anything??? approach has to be balanced with a notion of realism, and this is the really difficult thing. Lots of young people believe that they can become pop stars or very successful sports professional which de-motivates them from learning about other more realistic and ultimately more fulfilling careers.

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