Career Aspirations: Are GCSEs Important?

career aspirations: man adjusting a tie

I’m envious of a fifteen-year-old to whom I provide extra support in English. The reason for my envy? He doesn’t really require my support…and his career aspirations are all sewn up.

Sure, SPaG is not his strong point and there’s fine-tuning to be done on exam technique but none of that’s really going to matter six months down the line once the exam’s been sat. And it’s testament to the boy’s healthy work ethic that nineteenth century non-fiction matters a jot to him before June. And the reason that Shakespeare is of no significance – sacrilege from an English specialist! – is that he’s already got himself a job.

And no, he’s not settling for life as a menial wage slave by extending his Saturday McJob to full-time hours. Even if he were, someone has to do those jobs and it’s a flaw in our society, regrettably perpetuated by our education system, that such jobs are looked down upon by so many. Somebody has to serve the chicken nuggets without which, let’s face it, the fabric of twenty-first-century life would probably unravel (just think back to the 2018 meltdown when KFC suffered a supply shortage – you probably heard about it from students even if it occurred no first-hand distress)!

Naturally, aspiration should be encouraged in school, but at what cost? It’s long been evident that the drive to send half of the nation‘s young people to university is futile when there aren’t that number of graduate jobs awaiting them at the end of it, instead saddling them with debt from the very start of their adult lives. Being overqualified is not necessarily a bad thing, at least there are more opportunities open to university graduates, but being over-ambitious can be just as damaging as lacking ambition.

Aspirations Can Clash with Reality

A report by the Education and Employers charity warns that there is a disconnect between career aspirations and reality, meaning that many are unavoidably “destined for disappointment”.

So what can educators do to improve matters? Children’s horizons should be broadened, not limited, but the research recommends that career aspirations “be engaged with and, if necessary, constructively challenged”. Careers advice should enable children to dream but with a dose of reality; reach for the stars in the knowledge that they remain light-years away.

Perhaps most significantly, schools play a huge part in shaping expectations and the intense focus on academia at the expense of vocational and practical skills sends out the wrong message and does a disservice to far too many.

Can Teachers Help Students with Career Aspirations?

Classroom teachers are cogs in the system who obviously can’t be blamed for wanting students to perform to their full potential in our individual subjects. Perhaps, though, we’d all benefit from a shot of reality – what will happen if that borderline student with other interests/issues doesn’t scrape a 4? Chances are their future prospects will suffer less than our performance management targets. Will they be any less happy long term? Highly unlikely given that many psychologists expound J.O.M.O. (the joy of missing out, i.e. being more chilled) over F.O.M.O. (fear of missing out). Never mind broadening the pupils’ horizons, teachers’ own viewpoints become severely limited in the run-up to exams, if not sooner, and our own happiness levels (and, subsequently, productivity) would probably increase if we more readily accepted that not everyone is cut out for GCSE or A-level success.

All of which brings us back to the happy, relaxed Year Eleven with a guaranteed apprenticeship to John Deere: multinational manufacturers of agricultural, construction and forestry equipment. Yes, I still want him to get the 4 (or even 5) of which I know he’s truly capable. But I’m not going to sweat it, and nor should he. Because while I’m still struggling to make complete sense of my chosen profession, he’s got a career pathway mapped out. Next week he’s having a tour of the Nottingham college campus where his off-the-job learning will continue for as long as he wants to push himself within their corporate framework, and he’s giddy with excitement in a way that I’ve never seen in class. When I was fifteen, I had scant idea of what I wanted to do with my life or how to go about it. By the time I left university I had, if possible, even less idea. And while it was quite exciting to enter my twenties with the future unwritten, in my thirties I’m jealous of anyone who seems to have their work-life sussed.

Subscribe to Beyond for access to thousands of secondary teaching resources. You can sign up for a free account here and take a look around at our free resources before you subscribe too.

Leave a Reply