Why raising career aspirations in young people is essential for widening opportunities

road horizonYoung people aged 11-16 think confidence and connections are more important for getting on in life than going to university according to a recent report by the Sutton Trust.

The number of teenagers who agree that it is “important” to go to university for future success has fallen by 10 per cent to 65 per cent since 2018; compared with 86 per cent in agreement in 2013 it’s clear this is a downward trend.

So why are more young people not viewing university as an option for them? Socio-economic factors are certainly part of the picture. The University Aspirations 2019 research found that young people from the least affluent families were less likely to see university as important to them (61 per cent compared with 67 per cent in ‘high affluence’ households) and white pupils viewed it less positively than peers who came from BAME backgrounds (62 per cent compared with 75 per cent).

White children who are eligible for free school meals (Pupil Premium) are consistently the lowest performing group in the country. The government White Paper Underachievement in Education by White Working Class Children found white working class underachievement in education to be “real and persistent” with the difference between their educational performance and that of their less deprived white peers larger than for any other ethnic group and a gap that widens further as children get older.

Many challenges for young people

Today’s labour market is more complex for young people than previous generations. In particular, fewer entry level roles for young people mean that those from lower socio-economic backgrounds find it harder to get a foot on the ladder for a number of reasons.

As a careers adviser, I’m aware of how important it is to challenge aspirations early and with recent research from Education & Employers suggesting that children’s career aspirations are unlikely to change between the ages of seven and 17, we need to start having conversations about careers well before they reach secondary school.

More than one third of children base their early career aspirations solely on people they know. For many reasons, children from disadvantaged backgrounds are likely to have fewer opportunities to meet people in a range of jobs. All of this means that some children’s horizons can be narrowed at a very early age.

Good guidance can make a real difference

The first recommendation made by the Sutton Trust report was that all pupils should receive a guaranteed level of careers advice from professional, impartial advisers, to help them make an informed decision about their next steps. A careers adviser knows that time spent with young people who face a range of challenges can help to increase their aspirations and progression and that often, one session is not enough. As the Department for Education stated in its 2015 statutory guidance: “Modern careers guidance is as much about inspiration and aspiration as it is about advice.”

Modern careers guidance is as much about inspiration and aspiration as it is about advice.
Department for Education

Part of my role is to offer pupils the opportunity to think creatively about their career choices and to explore possibilities. I always try to discuss higher education as a progression option with students and will work alongside university outreach teams, organising visits to universities and colleges to open up possibilities that may not have been considered at home. There is also huge value in organising careers events in school which offer all the students the chance to meet with employers and training providers, starting to break down some of those negative perceptions that might exist.

Whole-school approach

But careers advisers and careers leaders can’t work in isolation. It requires a whole school approach to raise aspirations; a diverse and varied careers programme is essential in all key stages of education and needs to be embedded into the curriculum. Only by adopting a holistic approach to career guidance will staff, as well as students, feel enabled to consider different options and manage expectations whilst challenging perceived barriers.

In addition to raising the profile of careers guidance in school, I also work hard to include parents. Many have been involved in careers evenings where they talk about their own professions and career experiences. By sharing their career journeys and being prepared to talk to pupils it helps create a meaningful connection between parents and pupils, the labour market and the school community.


For more information about how Ideas4Careers supports schools with bespoke career guidance for vulnerable students or those with additional needs please visit our Support4Progression page.


About the author:

Phil Nelson MCDI Joined Ideas4Careers in 2014/15 and also works as an independent careers adviser in the High Peak and the Derbyshire Dales. He has worked in careers for 23 years including 14 years as Head of Careers in two large 6th form colleges in South Yorkshire, as a higher education specialist. Phil is very much concerned with raising aspirations and supporting students from poorer backgrounds.