Career-related learning in primary schools and improved attainment: Studies from the USA

Chris Percy, Research Associate, Education and Employers and Director, CSP Resources

Research undertaken by Education and Employers has shown that interactions with volunteers from the world of work make a significant difference to pupil’s aspirations, behaviours and attainment. Based on a Randomised Control Trial methodology, the 2019 Motivated to Achieve’ study of 14-16 year olds showed an improved attitude to learning and increased motivation to study, which together supported higher grades at GCSE.

Two reports Education and Employers published in 2018 looked at the benefits to primary aged-children of career-related learning: “Career-related learning in primary: The role of primary teachers and schools in preparing children for the future” and “What works? Career-related learning in primary schools”.

Recent evidence from the Primary Futures scale-up pilot has found that the biggest impact has been on children from disadvantaged backgrounds with over 80% gaining an improved understanding of how maths, English and science can be used in future work roles and 87% better understanding the link between school achievement and their future success.

Reflecting on these UK findings I wondered what international studies had been done on the link between career related-learning at the primary level and improved academic attainment. While there seems to be little empirical work in this area, there is a series of American studies which relate improved career-related learning and counselling in primary school with higher grades in standardised tests.

In one study of 96 primary schools from the state of Indiana[1], schools with an accredited programme (“RAMP”) achieved a proficiency rate of 78% in England/Language Arts and 80% in Maths, compared to 72% and 74% in a comparison group, randomly sampled across Indiana with locale-based sampling to increase the accuracy of the comparison with respect to important factors like ethnicity of intake and free lunch percentages. This difference was statistically significant at the 1% level or better considering the variation within the accredited group of schools (n=24) and within the comparison group (n=72), which suggests the improved performance was highly unlikely to be driven by chance variation alone.

A second study examines 150 state-funded primary schools, sampled at random across Washington state[2]. The authors report that: “Over several years, participants who stayed in high usage [i.e. those delivering comprehensive programmes] schools significantly outperformed their counterparts in the comparison schools on the Grade 3 ITBS Vocabulary, Comprehension, Reading, and Mathematics, and Grade 4 WASL Listening, Reading, Writing, and Mathematics tests.”

This body of research focuses on “comprehensive counseling and career guidance programmes”, which correspond to a specified approach to counselling which is all-age and holistic.

Such programmes span pre-Kindergarten (age 3-5) to 12th Grade (age 17-18) and beyond and incorporate three key domains: social emotional support, academic achievement and college & career readiness. Some of these programmes (“RAMP programmes”) are accredited by ASCA, the American School Counselor Association[3], confirming that the programmes operate to given level of specification and quality. An impressive body of research has been established over the decades supporting the potential benefit of this approach to student support.[4]

“College and career readiness” is seen as an essential component of these programmes[5] and is integrated with other forms of support from age 3-5 onwards.

Naturally, the kinds of activities that relate to career readiness look very different in primary school to secondary school. No-one, least of all school counsellors and personal advisers, wants to make kids grow up too fast or become fixated on a single job. Primary-age career-related learning is quite the opposite. As Nick Chambers, CEO of Education and Employers writes in Career Matters[6], “[It is about] broadening horizons and raising aspirations, giving children a wide range of experiences of the world including the world of work. It is about opening doors, showing children the vast range of possibilities open to them and helping to keep their options open for as long as possible. And there is a range of attributes, skills, and behaviours that can be encouraged in this early stage of a child’s life that will leave them in the best possible position as they begin their transitions to secondary education and to future life.”

Best practice guidelines in America similarly focus on the importance of a broad and inclusive approach to career-related learning.

ASCA recommend a series of age-appropriate “college and career readiness activities” from pre-Kindergarten onwards.[7] At the youngest ages, they focus on play techniques relating tools to professions, such as using building blocks or Lego to prompt a discussion about construction jobs and stethoscopes to talk about medical professions, exploiting the opportunity to step outside of traditional gender stereotypes, introducing the idea of jobs and lifelong careers, and incorporating visits and activities with outside speakers (an obstacle course and discussion with real firefighters is given as an example). This work is integrated into the rhythm of school, such as with “daily career highlights” and games drawing or wearing the colours of different colleges or universities.

As the children are aged 7 to 9, the variety of jobs that exist can be discussed more explicitly and stereotypes can be challenged more proactively with games and competitions like “fishing for careers”, alongside work on financial literacy and college awareness. Aged 9-11, ASCA recommend a simple taxonomy for understanding different sectors of the economy, understanding the diversity of roles within them with example pay and progression pathways. The social value and interconnectedness of different roles is explained. Careers fairs, visits and projects are used to bring the diversity and taxonomy to life. Parental engagement and incorporation of the world of work is best practice throughout.

Another key to success is that such programs are comprehensive – the three domains are integrated with each other and success in one supports success in another. Motivation at school and inspiration about future opportunities supports behaviour and emotional control at school; better behaviour and grades all contribute to a positive environment in which learning about future opportunities is more likely to take hold. The research does not specifically isolate components of success, i.e. whether it is the social and emotional support that drives success or the career-related learning components. This focus is likely deliberate – the value of an integrated programme comes from its constituent parts working together. Asking otherwise is like asking whether it is the wheels, the petrol or the engine that make a car such an effective means of transport.


Building on these findings

On this side of the pond, there is growing interest in the potential for careers-related activities in primary schools – the potential for explicitly future-focused work, exploring job roles and career journeys in fun and thought-provoking ways, ranging from job corners or displays and “show & tell” for jobs to playing games and quizzing volunteer speakers, from workplace visits and trips to mini competitions and enterprise days.[8]

Such conversations and activities have always been part of primary school life and recent years have seen growing policy recognition and practical support, underpinned by significant ambition from primary school teachers to do more. The National Association of Head Teachers, together with Education and Employers, launched Primary Futures in 2016 to connect primary schools directly with volunteers from the world of work.[9] The Department for Education incorporated primary schools into its careers strategy published in December 2017[10]  and then in 2019 provided funding via the  Careers & Enterprise Company to look at what interventions could be scaled up.[11] Channel 4 even ran a primetime TV show, grouping 7-9 year olds together to do a week’s work experience with either a chocolate factory, an estate agent or a magazine: cue heart-warming drama, sudden reveals and a cameo from Prince Charles.[12]

The UK research base has not related primary school career-related learning to grades in the same way as the US research base– such research activity has simply not yet been investigated or funded at a similar scale. However, we have found benefits at secondary school.

The Motivated to Achieve report presented a randomised control trial of career talks delivered during GCSE year, identifying a route to improved grades via increased revision hours and motivation. This research showed that participation in career talks with volunteers from the world of work can change the attitudes of Key Stage 4 (14-16 years old) pupils to their education.  This can influence their future plans and subject choices, motivate them to study harder and supports an improvement in academic attainment – even when taking place only a few months before their exams start.  It showed that lower achievers and less engaged learners responded best to the intervention.  This is particularly pertinent for schools facing funding challenges and considering where best to allocate their finite time and resources[14]

Such findings align with other research in the UK on GCSE results (e.g. Hooley et al, 2014[13]) and in the US which have extended into middle school and high school, finding links to improved attendance and discipline, improved maths and reading scores in state achievement tests, (e.g. Carey and Dimmitt, 2012[15]; Sink et al, 2008[16])  and improved students’ sense of safety and wellbeing, relationships with their teachers, satisfaction with their education and ability to deal with interpersonal problems (Lapan et al, 2003[17]).


What are the implications for the UK ?

The evidence from the US should give stakeholders and policymakers confidence that supporting career-related learning in primary school can enhance academic attainment. It suggests that this impact may be most observable when approached as part of an integrated model, explicitly combining social and emotional support alongside work on academic motivation/engagement and career-related learning.

As well as what we can say with confidence, research inevitably shines a spotlight on what we cannot. The US research is cross-sectional, comparing schools at different levels of sophistication with respect to their counselling offer. It is not a randomised control trial and despite efforts to ensure an appropriate comparison group, we cannot be sure that other factors do not drive both impressive programmes and positive grade outcomes. Such research strengthens the case for the theorised link to exist, but it cannot guarantee it. How important is career-related learning as a component of the overall programme? Would the findings replicate fully in a UK setting? How would such possible impacts play out differently across different demographics? The researchers in this area are well aware of such unexplored questions and we can look forward to new evidence and insights emerging in the years ahead.

The vision of pastoral and holistic support resonates well with the ambitions of personal advisers embedded in our secondary schools. And perhaps particularly in primary education, there may be a case for exploring an explicit integration of careers, counselling and play to nurture children while feeding their curiosity, challenging the stereotypical views that children often have about the jobs people do based on their gender and economic, social and ethnic background, and opening their eyes to future possibilities.



[1] Wilkerson, K., Perusse, R., & Hughes, A. (2013). Comprehensive school counseling programs and student achievement outcomes: A comparative analysis of RAMP versus non-RAMP schools. Professional School Counseling, 16 (3), 172-184. doi: 10.1177/2156759X1701600302

[2] Sink, C., & Stroh, H. (2003). Raising Achievement Test Scores of Early Elementary School Students Through Comprehensive School Counseling Programs. Professional School Counseling, 6(5), 350-364.

[3] Details about ASCA available at

[4] ASCA. (2019). Empirical Research Studies Supporting the Value of School Counseling. Available at:

[5] Jeffries-Simmon, T. and Ackleson, D. (2017). Washington State Comprehensive School Counseling and Guidance Program Model. Washington: OPSI

[6] Chambers, N. (2020). ‘Starting Early’. Article in the Career Development Institute’s Career Matters publication, Issue 8.2, June 2020.

[7] Curry, M., & Milsom, A. (2017). Career and college readiness counseling in P-12 Schools (second edition). Springer. Available via ASCA store:


[9] ;


[11] Boost for primary school careers education, published 30/07/2019.


[13] Hooley, T., Matheson, J., & Watts, A.G. (2014). Advancing Ambitions: The role of career guidance in supporting social mobility. London: Sutton Trust.

[14] Kashefpakdel, E., Percy, C., & Rehill, J. (2019). Motivated to achieve: How encounters with the world of work can change attitudes and improve academic achievement. London: Education and Employers Charity. Available at:

[15] Carey, J., & Dimmitt, C. (2012). School Counseling and Student Outcomes: Summary of Six Statewide Studies. Professional School Counseling, 16(2), 146-153

[16] Sink, C. A., Akos, P., Turnbull, R. J., & Mvududu, N. (2008). An Investigation of Comprehensive School Counseling Programs and Academic Achievement in Washington State Middle Schools. Professional School Counseling.

[17] Lapan, R., Gysbers, N., & Petroski, G. (2003). Helping Seventh Graders Be Safe and Successful: A Statewide Study of the Impact of Comprehensive Guidance and Counseling Programs. Professional School Counseling, 6(3), 186-197.