Careers Education in Primary school is the conversation we should be having

It can often seem that there is a never ending focus on Secondary education issues or achievements. If we viewed our school stages as a family, it could be argued that there is an inverse middle child syndrome at play; With Primary, Further and Higher education siblings looking at Secondary schools as the child that gets all the attention while they’re skills, talents and achievements are largely ignored. Below we examine how recently released reports allow us to switch the focus slightly and once again talk about the importance of Careers education or work related learning needs to start at the Primary level, particularly for disadvantaged young people.

When I started my Careers Leader training, I remember being shown a film all about primary age children and their gender role assumptions. The film moved me to tears. While watching the film I immediately thought of my Primary aged daughters and how I hoped that they weren’t already thinking of themselves unworthy of careers traditionally thought of as ‘for the boys’. The conversations I’d had with them at that point were always progressive. When it came up I would ask them why they chose to be a Nurse over a Doctor. When my soon to be born baby boy is old enough I expect to have similar conversation with him, just the other way round.

The January 2018 Education and Employers ‘Drawing the Future’ report concluded that career aspirations from age 7 – 17 remain similar. Aspirations are often based on gender stereotypes, socio-economic backgrounds and drawn from the media they consume. The recently expired national Careers strategy acknowledged the benefits of early Careers work and made funding available for research in this area. What, can we ask, has come of it? As there is no statutory requirement for Careers education or guidance in place for our youngest of students, what they receive comes down to what individual schools can provide. As such, what they do get is patchy to say the least.


The impact of socio-economic background in framing Careers aspirations is significant. The recently released UCAS ‘Where next?’ report concluded that one in three undergraduates started thinking about Higher Education in primary school, disadvantaged young people are more likely to think about this much later. They concluded further that this delay in thinking can limit their choices, especially for more selective subjects and higher tariff providers (read our full take on this report here).

If we follow these disadvantaged students through their education The Social Mobility Commission ‘The Road not taken: drivers of course selection’ report made several troubling key findings:

On their own, these issues would be significant but the report went on to say that only three in five young people reported receiving any career guidance before the age of 16. Furthermore, young people taking higher-level courses are usually better informed about education pathways and other opportunities open to them. Finally, the report concluded that disadvantaged young people are more likely to be disappointed by their choices and gender norms remain pervasive.

These three reports highlight that although Careers education in secondary schools and colleges has been revolutionised in the past 7 years, with consistent and sustained improvement in that time, there is still much work to be done. We can really start accelerating progress by starting to build that bridge from education to employment at a much earlier age.

Consensus is already in place for the need to focus more attention on work-related learning in Primary schools and the data shows the positive impact of such focus. If we turn our attention to the Education and Employers ‘Starting Early’ report, for more context on the positive impact.

Once again the ‘research shows that children from as young as five have ingrained stereotypical views about the jobs people do based on their gender, ethnicity, and social background. Most children’s career aspirations are based on family, friends, and the media, with less than 1% knowing about a job from someone visiting their school.’

The report goes on to show that that there is ‘evidence of a low-cost approach that is underexploited in addressing this challenge: giving children access to role models from the world of work and empowering teachers to connect directly with employer volunteers to organise high-quality career-related learning. These activities reduce stereotypes, enhance confidence, foster a positive attitude towards school, and improve attainment.

If we look at why getting this right in Primary school matters, the ‘Starting Early’ report states clearly:

Evidence from teachers, children, sector leaders, and researchers suggests that career-related learning enriched with employer activities brings many benefits for primary children:

  • Increases motivation and attainment by helping children see the relevance of learning and building positive attitudes towards school, particularly among the most disadvantaged children.
  • Improves social mobility by providing children with access to role models who can inspire them and broaden their horizons, showing that their background does not need to determine their future.
  • Ensures children do not rule out career options for themselves, simply because they do not realise the details and benefits of the full range of opportunities open to them.

Evidence of impact:

We know from the publicly available notes from the November Quality in Careers Consortium Board meeting that conversations are taking place in regards to Primary school careers quality awards – which is excellent news and hopefully we’ll learn more about the progress with this soon.

Further progress is being made with and the Year 1 report of the North East Ambition Career Benchmarks: Primary Pilot made for encouraging reading. Although, as the report states, it is too early see evidence that the Pilot is having a positive impact on student outcomes, there is evidence to assume that these positive impacts may arise in future.

  • 72% – of Career Leaders believe that pupils are now aware of a more diverse range of career options.
  • 81% – of Career Leaders believe that pupils better understand the links between what they are studying and future career options.
  • 89% – of Career Leaders believe that pupils are able to talk more about their career plans

With all this evidence, it is clear that now very much is the time to cast our eyes towards Primary schools to prepare our children for the world that awaits them. We wouldn’t wait until children reach the age of 11 or 12 before we teach them literacy or numeracy, so why wait so long with Careers? Like with many challenges we face as a society, if we trace them back far enough we know we can deal with them as little issues before they grow up to be big problems.

*UPDATE – this article was updated 01/04/21 to include reference to the North East Ambition Career Benchmarks: Primary Pilot.

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