Careers and all that

Both GCSE and A-level results days often entail kids having to think again about their next step. Regrettably, the decisions must often made very quickly – and while I hope it all works out OK for all of them, I’m never that sure.

Post A-level, the commonest change seems to be from one strongly vocational degree to another (having not got the grades for the first). I feel a bit uncomfortable with this. In the nature of things, degrees such as Optometry and Pharmacy are designed for people wanting to go into those careers – in other words, you are effectively planning out your future working life when you choose them. How can a kid who has been telling me, for the last however many years, that they are passionate about Medicine, now become sufficiently passionate about Optometry that they know that’s what they want to spend their life doing?  An even more extreme example are those who’ve changed at this stage from Medicine to Law. Huh? Completely different skill-set, type of occupation – and you’re happy to commit yourself within a week?

Of course, it all comes down to this idea of the main purpose of education being to fit you for your career – the career comes first (and, for some people, it’s not just in first place, it’s the only horse in the race). And provided it’s a safe, decently paid, traditional professional occupation, that’s enough – individual preferences, aptitudes or tastes don’t come into it, it seems.

The same issue comes up post-GCSE with A-level choices. The number of times I have seen kids who tell me they are desperate to be a doctor/dentist/pharmacist etc, but then go on to say “but I’m no good at chemistry” or “I don’t enjoy biology”.  Again – huh?? Would it be reasonable to say “I want to be a physicist but I don’t enjoy physics” or “I want to be an athlete but I’m useless at sport”?   So every year there are kids who take on A-level sciences who have neither sufficient aptitude nor the enthusiasm that might help compensate for that – with the result they have a miserable time, and often do not get the very high grades their proposed career requires. Or some do manage to get the grades, and then will be heading off for another five years studying subjects they do not enjoy…

I know we live in a world where continuing in education is a very costly business, so perhaps a little more focus on the future than in my day is understandable. But it’s still true that the majority of graduate jobs are open to those with good degrees in pretty well any discipline – a non-vocational course, or a rather unusual subject combination at A-level, is not an immediate guarantee of unemployment – and doing something you like is more likely to produce that all-important good degree.

Why do we have this ridiculous level of career focus from so young an age (often right from the beginning of secondary school)? Am I so odd in thinking that you figure out first what you enjoy and are good at, and then think about your career plans after that?  I am certainly not criticising the work done by my colleagues who advise on Careers – of course it is good for young people to be able to get information about their options, and to talk them through with an unbiased and knowledgeable advisor. There’s also no doubt you do need to be able to find out  what A-levels (or GCSEs) are required for a specific career. But there is a big difference between having that info there to refer to – to help, for example, when deciding between subject X and subject Y, both of which you like and do well in – and using it to dictate choices irrespective of preferences and aptitude.

An early career focus is wrong on so many levels.

Firstly, it’s often about the parents’ aspirations, not the child’s.  Alarm bells always ring when at a Year 7 parents’ evening, the parent says “she’s going to be a lawyer” or “she’ll be applying  for medicine”.  NO! She’s a little girl – she doesn’t know yet! And parents, your child is not your property – you do not dictate their life for them!

Secondly, if it is actually the child’s idea, then is it really well informed? As I’ve mentioned before, I fancied being an astronaut as a child (spent too much time reading science fiction) – OK, that was obviously a bit of an unlikely career aspiration for an unfit, clumsy geeky kid, but should we always take prospective vets or nurses or barristers more seriously?  – maybe their reading matter was just different to mine.  I’m not saying we pour cold water on all those ideas – it would be unkind and unhelpful – but we shouldn’t regard them as fixtures, any more than any other tastes and opinions held by children.

Thirdly, we don’t do anyone any favours if we suggest that everyone is equally well suited to doing everything. I certainly don’t want to put a ceiling on anyone’s ambition – and, as per last week’s post, I am all in favour of people having a go at something if they really want to. But if you find essay writing tough and time consuming (as I did) then that is probably telling you that a degree course and a career requiring lots of extended writing is not for you. Similarly,  if you find it hard to deal with concepts expressed mathematically and have little spatial awareness, maybe engineering isn’t a good career choice.

Finally,  this career emphasis  is pandering to the instrumentalist view of education that is becoming almost universal.  School is not just to prepare you for work; subjects are not just a means to getting into your chosen occupation.

The other thing that always strikes me is the way everyone seems to assume that you have “a career” singular. My mother worked in areas from staff management at M&S to children’s welfare to computer programming (before I interrupted things!) – and that was in the days when jobs often were for life. A certain fluidity in career is called for these days – the “what are you going to do with your life” approach is not only limiting but antiquated.

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2 Responses to Careers and all that

  1. sarah evans says:

    Excellent liberal perspective but there may be times when the year or more between filling in the UCAS form and A Level results has brought a change of heart and only with the unexpected grades, does a student suddenly realise they have got a choice. With Medicine in particular, it can seem as though there has been no real choice made at all, just a series of hoops that have been climbed through. So perhaps the missed A grades suddenly seem like an escape route that they never realised they wanted.

    • teacherposts says:

      Very good point. In some cases I wonder whether the gnawing doubts about the career they’ve been railroaded into have subconsciously prevented them giving the exams their best shot.

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