What should careers education look like in Early Years and primary settings?

Will Millard, Head of Policy Advocacy at LKMco, shares his thoughts as to what careers education should look like in Early Years and primary settings.

Before we began the research for LKMco’s new report on careers education, I wouldn’t have necessarily been supportive of the idea of young children taking part in a careers education from an early stage. After all, what would be the point? They’re a long way away from making any decisions that could influence their careers (such as what subjects to pick for GCSEs), and even further from actually getting a job. Furthermore, shouldn’t the priority for young children be the development of more immediately-relevant knowledge and skills they’ll need as they start school? And aren’t schools meant to do more than simply prepare children to become productive members of the workforce?

What should careers education look like in Early Years and primary settings?
However, since leading LKMco’s research into age-appropriate careers education (for the charity Founders4Schools), my views on when children should begin learning about careers has shifted. In the report, we argue that children as young as two and three can benefit from learning about different jobs and industries. Our research builds on the important work undertaken by Education and Employers, on the importance of supporting careers-related learning in primary settings.

Careers education is only a part of the experience young children should have at school but, if done right, it could help ensure all children flourish in school and later life.

A key benefit is that early careers-related learning can help counteract the formation of stereotypes and unconscious biases, which begin to take a hold early in a child’s life, and often before they have started school. This might include notions about what constitutes a ‘boys’ job’ or a ‘girls’ job’, or links between class, ethnicity, disability, or geography, and the world of work. This can arise in part because young children see a skewed range of jobs through literature and the media. Of course, children should be free to aspire to become footballers and/or firemen, but exposure to wider range of ideas in Early Years and primary settings could help broaden children’s understanding of the world that exists beyond their classroom.

Will learning about jobs distract children from other activities that are arguably more important at that age? Well, not if such activities are age-appropriate. This is not about setting toddlers loose on a factory floor, or expecting a four-year-old to make the tea! Drawing on the literature and contributions from a wide range of careers experts and practitioners (including representatives from Education and Employers, and the Careers and Enterprise Company), our research outlines how settings can incorporate careers learning into their existing provision. Children can learn about different jobs and pathways, while developing the vital personal, social, academic and emotional skills that will underpin their time in school, and adult lives.

During the research I loved hearing about how practitioners in the Early Years and infants incorporate jobs from different sectors into children’s play, using props to introduce these young children to different roles. Alongside the ‘usual suspects’ – doctors, nurses, policemen, and so on – practitioners could encourage children to play in other roles; architects, artists, engineers, environmentalists, musicians, software developers…. Some settings create ‘jobs corners’, areas of the classroom containing props and books intentionally selected by staff to expose children to less obvious jobs.

Primary settings can work with parents by inviting them in to participate in or even lead activities designed to help their children explore different roles and pathways. We visited St Mary’s RC Primary School and Borestone Primary & Nursery School in Stirling, which invite parents in to speak to groups of children about their careers, but also to listen to external speakers during assemblies or sit in on careers-related workshops. It is also important that teachers help children develop their vocabulary, so that pupils understand what terms such as ‘career’ or ‘industry’ mean, and how these concepts relate to them.

People often think of careers education as being about funnelling down and narrowing options. This has its place (particularly later on), but in the Early Years and at primary school careers education should be about opening children’s minds to what is possible.