Do secondary school pupils need career guidance? | Abingdon Senior School

Do secondary school pupils need career guidance?
By Michael Triff, Head of Career Guidance at Abingdon School

Working people spend more hours in a week working than they do anything else, and for most, their career lasts for at least 45 years, depending on their personal ambitions and circumstances. Due to the increase in life expectancy, slow wage growth, less generous pensions, increase in the state pension age, and (potentially) rationing of state pension payments, many working people’s careers will last even longer. So, what one does during a long career matters a great deal, and getting the right guidance to make the right decisions along the way is vital.

That’s true for adults, but do secondary school age pupils need career guidance? If you were to ask Abingdon parents – and, indeed, Abingdon teachers – you might be surprised by how many would say no. The main reasons given? They are too young to decide on something so far into the future. Let them pursue their academic interests, free from practical considerations. They won’t truly know their mind for some time to come. School is stressful enough without the added pressure of career planning.

But, I take a different view… which, of course, I would!

The purpose of career guidance in a secondary school is to inform, upskill, empower and motivate young people to take (incremental and age-appropriate) control over their career planning. The first challenge is, therefore, helping pupils to get on an education/training pathway that is right for them, at that point in time, and ideally one that keeps open opportunities as their career thinking develops and matures over time.

At Abingdon School, career guidance starts (in earnest) in the 3rd Year with a lesson called ‘Exploring Careers’. At the start, I contextualise the lesson with the first image. I ask the boys, “What is the meaning behind this sequence of numbers?”, and usually at least one boy figures it out pretty quickly. I then overlay the second image.

I explain to the boys Stephen Covey’s philosophy of ‘begin with the end in mind’. I suggest they consider the education/training pathways to all the occupations that currently interest them and, working backwards from there, make subject choices which are directly informed by those pathways.  But I hasten to add that they need to be open to change, because what interests them at 13 might change by 16, and again by 18, 21 and even later. The key message; review and update your career thinking at each key decision-making stage in your education.

But informing subject choices from a careers perspective is not the only benefit of career guidance for secondary school pupils. There are others:

  • Some occupations fall in and out of balance with labour market demand. Good career guidance helps pupils anticipate where (and when) opportunities (and difficulties) might arise.
  • There are persistent myths as well as cultural biases and stereotypes about many occupations. Good career guidance can help to overcome these.
  • New occupations are born each year (while others fade away) – a result of increased specialisation, globalisation, and emergent technologies. Good career guidance shows pupils the breadth of options there might be, not just the ones in their immediate view.
  • Interactions with employers provide the most useful insights for pupils. Good career guidance creates these opportunities, including work experience, career fairs, industry sector talks, and alumni career advice events.
  • Employers remain critical of the ‘soft skills’ that entry level employees bring to their job. Good career guidance can help pupils develop these skills which will make them more employable when the time comes.
  • The range of academic, vocational and work-based pathways into occupations is wider than most pupils (and parents) realise. Good career guidance plays an important role in helping pupils weigh the pros and cons of taking different paths.
  • As higher education costs increase, families are forced to assess whether going to university is financially justified (even if affordable). Good career guidance helps pupils assess the occupational relevance of higher education.
  • For some pupils, the absence of career direction inhibits performance. Good career guidance can help pupils see the link between ‘learning, working and earning’ and thus inform, motivate, and inspire greater effort and achievement.

The guiding principle behind the Abingdon School’s Career Guidance Programme is ‘helping every pupil to think carefully about, and take practical steps towards realising, his future career.’  If a career lasts 45 years, surely we owe it to our pupils to get them off to the best start possible.

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