What are the influences on children’s career perceptions and why should primary schools get involved?

primary childrenThere are multiple factors that affect a child’s perception of what is available to them as a future career. Recent research from Education and Employers “Drawing the Future” revealed that not only are children’s career aspirations often based on gender stereotypes, socio-economic backgrounds and by TV, film and radio, these barely change between the age seven to seventeen.

Writing as two mums of four children between the ages of 3 and 9, we witness this every day in our own children’s development and as professional careers advisers we recognise that at their age, the focus isn’t on choosing a job but rather about gathering information on the possibilities that the future holds for them personally. It is also the age when children are forming their thoughts and ideas about the world so it’s so crucial that they’re exposed to positive role models.

Children begin to form stereotypes about occupations, careers and universities from the age of six
(National Foundation for Educational Research (NFRE) research)

At five years old, a child’s career ideas tend to focus on those occupations they see on a regular basis: the dance teacher, swimming teacher, family jobs or those they see on children’s television. For some children their frame of reference may be very narrow. Another study found that “four out of five children think banking is a man’s job and nursing is a woman’s” and when asked to draw a builder, 88% drew a man.

According to one study, four out of five children think banking is a man’s job and nursing is a woman’s

In recent years there’s been a conscious push to create television content for pre-school children that challenges gender stereotypes. Examples include a female inventor role model on the CBeebies channel which focuses on raising awareness of STEAM (science, technology, engineering and maths) principles, and a female rally driver, Catie, who talks through her choice of amazing machines for this younger audience. But these representations are still in the minority and there is a plethora of other sources of experience that children draw on.

At a recent Chamber of Commerce Skills event, Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE, fellow of UK Career Development Institute (CDI), talked about the three key influences on our decision making: experience, rumours and contamination by mass media. If media is slowly moving in the right direction, how can we ensure that we widen the career-related experiences that our children have, which will help to dispel more of the myths surrounding them?

The influence of our primary schools is huge in this area. The Careers and Enterprise Company is running pilots across the country, building on their ‘What Works in Primary?’ report. It seeks to find out how we can best influence the curriculum and inspire the next generation to be the best they can be and to consider all options. Organisations like Primary Futures now provide primary school pupils with exposure to an ever-increasing network of volunteer employers and opportunities that they otherwise wouldn’t otherwise have access to:

Primary Futures have over 40,000 volunteers at all levels – from apprentices to CEOs  – helping to make a difference to the lives of children in local communities across the country

Evidence on the stifling of social mobility in our society published by the Social Mobility Foundation is encouraging us to question what else can be done to challenge the inequalities that perpetuate.

Some organisations now provide a quality stamp for primary schools that are providing an excellent careers education programme to their students. A Careers Quality Award helps primary schools to raise aspirations, increase self-confidence and boost academic performance through helping children to understand the link between what they learn in school and the world of work. Thus challenging all kinds of stereotyping so that students consider a broad and ambitious range of possible careers

But we also need a complete shift in the way we talk to children, embedding positive language into our everyday curriculum and in wider society. As careers advisers, we avoid gender specific job terms, such as postman, air stewardess, policeman and fireman but language in school or at home is not always consistent.

Who challenges the small child who says that women can’t be astronauts or that university isn’t for ‘people like us’? Everyone needs to. Media. School. Home. This is the way that attitudes will change and doors will open for our future generations and it needs to start as young as possible.


Gillian Fox-Johnson and Katherine Jennick are experienced Career Development Practitioners with Ideas4Careers (UK) Ltd and lead on primary provision.

For  information on the range of stereotyping and careers-based activities we provide to primary schools please contact Gillian Fox-Johnson, School Development Manager through our contact form.

About the authors

Katherine JennickKatherine Jennick RCDP MCDI joined Ideas4Careers in 2017. With 15 years’ experience as a careers adviser as well as varied roles in mentoring and training Katherine has a wealth of expertise in supporting young people. Her innovative and creative approaches to career guidance helps to individualise the support for each young person and gives them a safe space to explore their self awareness. In her new role of School Partnership Manager she is developing key relationships between Ideas4Careers and several schools around Nottingham.

Gill Fox-JohnsonGillian Fox-Johnson BA RCDP MCDI joined Ideas4Careers in 2017. With 16 years’ experience as a careers adviser, she has worked in many secondary schools and college settings, supporting young people with their career decision making; she was a UCAS specialist in a sixth form college for Five of those years. Gill is driven by issues of social mobility and widening participation in higher education. Now School Development Manager for Ideas4Careers her role involves working with new and existing schools to develop the quality of their careers provision, and to support them in achieving the Gatsby Benchmarks. She provides consultancy and external assessment for schools undertaking the Quality in Careers Standard for Ideas4Careers under licence from Prospects and CareerMark