Giving Careers Advice to 11-16 Year-Olds

Becky Kleanthous  · Oct 5th 2020

Modern society can be such a paradox sometimes; on the one hand, people seem to be growing up more slowly (six-year-olds - thankfully - are no longer shoved up chimneys to earn a living, we’re getting married later and even dying later).


But on the other hand, it can feel as if someone’s leaning on the fast-forward button: young kids might carry mobile phones, or dress like teenagers, while our tweens are having to make career-altering decisions at just 12 or 13 years old.

It’s a big responsibility for them, but the guiding hand of an adult can help steer their ship in the direction they choose. Don’t panic right now, but what if that guiding hand was yours? And it was having to prevent several hundred ships crashing in the night? Choosing subject options has a huge knock-on effect for the future, potentially precluding or excluding different study and career paths at university and beyond. And getting pupils inspired at school is often the first lightbulb moment for them realising that they want to enter a certain career in the future. It’s a big responsibility, for sure. Still not panicking, I hope?

Oh but it’s not just Careers Advisors with a specific TLR who are required to give pupils advice on subject choices. Surprise! Form tutors often take a pivotal role too, or other pastoral staff such as year heads. But it’s not our job to tell them what choices to make; it’s a collaborative effort. A bit like the time that Colin held the door open and Sadiq distracted Ryan to get him into Geography for the first time in two weeks. You owe them, remember! Hey - are you panicking? No, don’t do that, remember!

Here’s a bunch of ideas to help get the team dreaming, talking, deliberating and making good choices.

Start early

Having conversations about careers or study goals can happen any time during secondary school. Now that the pupil is familiar with a range of different and distinct lessons - ICT, Biology, English Literature - in a way they might not have been clear about at primary school, they are probably already developing favourites (not that they would ever dream of expressing this, of course, by flinging their bag in the room first, followed by a barely-animated corpse slumping down into a chair and declaring that “MATHS IS THE ABSOLUTE WORST”). So you might notice some subtle expressions of preference, interest or reluctance from your students; act on these whenever you see them.

Don’t wait until Options Week is upon you drop the bombshell that Maths is actually compulsory and therefore there’s no point in them tuning out just yet. And don’t hesitate to point out that you’ve noticed their sketches of hats and shoes in the margins of their Imperial China essay, and they should probably check out the Design Technology qualification offered further on down the school. Follow their cues and get them thinking early on. Feeling motivated can only be a good thing.

Get them excited

No, that doesn’t mean chucking on a DVD in period five instead of the verb tenses exam that you’d promised them. It might be tempting for everyone (you included), but it’s not particularly inspirational.

In the wrong hands, school can feel like endless drudgery without anything good waiting at the finish line. And sure, some kids will be getting all hyped up at home by their parents, who’ve been role playing doctors or judges with them since they were in nappies. But not everyone has a plan, or knows what options even await for them in the world. Give your students a sense of purpose and excitement by introducing them to all the possibilities of the future now, while it can still make a difference.

Make it natural

If you’re teaching angles, why not show a photo of a cool building along with the architect plans that began the whole thing? When you analyse a politician’s persuasive speech in English Language, you could explain to your class that scriptwriting is a job, and that they might also be interested in Law, where professionals are required to speak eloquently and convincingly on a daily basis. Or if you’re teaching Modern Languages, how about bringing in a newspaper cutting about how many MI5 agents are recruited from languages courses? There are any number of ways to do it, but elaborating on your lessons with career information helps complete the tapestry for students who might otherwise find the world of work quite daunting and intangible.

Make it a focus

Along with this natural, interwoven approach, you can also make a big thing of it. Or a Really Big Thing, if you like.

A whole-school approach can have a massive impact on engagement, introducing a careers week for students in the lower school with options still ahead of them. Every subject department could profile a number of associated careers or academic opportunities in lesson time, watch relevant documentaries or interview clips, or utilise trips or visitors to meet some subject-specific professionals.

Another method to use - especially in a school unable to provide the time for a careers week - is to have a featured career displayed in your form room, with a picture, a job description, salary and qualification list. You could change it once a week or once a month, or even include it in the school newsletter. Make it a part of the furniture, an ongoing conversation and consideration for students.

Make it fun

How about an enterprise club? Students can feel closer to the world of work if they’re collaborating in teams to mastermind and enact business opportunities. It could be a lunchtime or after school club, and pupils could work together to raise money for charity in their groups. From bookmark making to bike valeting, cake baking to renting out extras for drama rehearsals, pupils can have fun, raise money for a good cause and learn some business acumen along the way.

Make it tangible

No offence, Ms/Sir, but your students are a bit bored of looking at your face, day in, day out. How about stirring up some excitement with a memorable (*hushed whisper*) outsider? A real life human adult who is not a teacher! Sounds too good to be true, but they do exist and they even visit schools sometimes, when they can’t avoid it. Bringing in an author, an artist, a musician, a scientist, a gymnast, a chef, a racing driver, a barrister, a nurse or a train driver doesn’t even have to cost money if you have good connections with parents, past students and local businesses. Or if they can’t come to you, how about you go to them? Nothing beats a school trip, and the pupils would even get the chance to see the world of work in action (imagine the fun / risk assessments you could have on a construction site, in a museum, a lab…!)

Whether it’s simply a talk with some questions and answers at the end, or an interactive workshop, it’s sure to light a few fires in the sleeping ambitions of some of your youngsters.

Making the right choices

So you’ve got them all fired up to be an astronaut or a Premier League footballer, but what next? What subjects do they need to choose to make it happen?

If your school has a residential careers advisor, do go and have a chat with them to get some ideas. Additionally, you can steer your students towards jobs pages: if they work backwards from the qualifications needed in a vacancy, then they should have a pretty clear path mapped out. For example, a job for a vet might require a BSc in Veterinary Medicine, so the student should then check out the UCAS page for this degree, to see what A-Levels, Highers or equivalent are needed for a place on the course. And from there, it’s easy to look at your own school or local college policy on which GCSEs, Nationals or equivalent are needed to get a place in those A Levels.

Students should also be able to talk to their own subject teachers to get some advice about whether that subject is right for them to pursue. If they are struggling to narrow things down, they could try talking to their parents, and listing pros and cons for each subject. Striking a balance is important too: a mixture of practical and essay-based subjects may be more enjoyable than all one or all the other, for example.

Having those conversations

Do be open-minded and listen carefully when your students talk about their aspirations. Don’t be dismissive of anything, no matter how unlikely it might seem to you: goals are great things to have, and if students are working towards something, they will likely stumble into something great - and right for them - along the way. Dashing a young person’s hopes could just make them give up and lose all direction completely. So be encouraging and positive! If you strongly feel like something is the wrong direction for a student, then if anything, it’s even more reason to encourage them to pursue some research, work experience or similar, to get a taste of it and test whether it really suits them, leaving plenty of time ahead to change their minds.

There’s a career out there for everyone, and if we can start making them seem real and interesting to young people, they have a better chance of choosing the right paths to meet their goals. And even if nothing else is certain, at least they can be sure that they won’t be shunting up any chimneys. Unless they get cast in a role for a Mary Poppins remake, that is.

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