What works? Career-related learning in primary schools

By Dr Elnaz Kashefpakdel, Jordan Rehill and Dr Deirdre Hughes OBE

Download the report here.

Research carried out by Education and Employers has been published in the latest Careers and Enterprise Company ‘What Works’ report. This paper draws together the existing evidence of the benefits of career-related learning in primary school.

Starting career education early is important. As longitudinal studies have shown, holding biased assumptions and having narrow aspirations can influence the academic effort children exert in certain lessons, the subjects they choose to study, and the jobs they end up pursuing. Research has also shown that the jobs children aspire to may be ones that their parents do, or those of their parents’ friends, or that they see on the TV and/or social media. Low expectations are often shaped by biases or commonly accepted stereotypes, such as ‘science isn’t for girls’ or ‘university isn’t for the working classes’. These societal expectations act to restrict children’s futures by limiting what they believe they can do.

Yet, the concept of careers and career-related learning in the primary school phase typically provokes a cautious reaction. Terms such as ‘careers learning’, ‘careers education’ or ‘careers lessons’ are often conflated with careers guidance which is often understood to be focused on careers choice. Many parents and teachers have concerns about directing children towards a particular career or job at a time when their aspirations should, rightly, be tentative.

Practitioners are often fearful of making children ‘grow up too fast’ at such a young age. Yet, many education and career development theorists highlight the formative years of childhood as integral to the overall understanding of the self (‘who am I?’) and opportunity awareness (‘what does the world of work look like?’). It appears that children begin to understand the world, and their roles within it, from a younger age than previously thought.  As a result, children may limit their educational and occupational choices at a time when their views are too narrow and experiences too limited to make a sound judgement.

In this report we refer to ‘career-related learning’ (CRL) which includes early childhood activities in primary schools designed to give children from an early age a wide range of experiences of and exposure to education, transitions and the world of work.

Career-related learning encompasses activities that involve: employers’ raising aspirations and broadening childrens’ horizons (through careers insights and ‘what’s my job’ events etc) and careers in the curriculum (through topic-based activities, discrete lessons and/ or themed weeks) designed to motivate children, to give them self-belief and to connect learning to life. Also, this includes children learning to improve their non-academic skills (i.e. activities often based in the curriculum but geared more towards improving enterprise and life skills, financial awareness, socio-emotional skills and behaviours).

By synthesising current literature, alongside new and emerging evidence from teachers and other leading experts, this paper sets out to critically assess career-related learning in primary schools in order to better understand and support evidence-based practice.

It is hoped the findings will help to inform policy, research and practice, outlining how primary schools and their partners can further strengthen career-related learning both within and outside of the classroom.


Lessons for practice

The evidence included in this review helps provide a range of key insights for practice:

Successful leadership

Evidence shows that positive impacts from career-related learning are greater when a consistent and whole school strategy is in place.

Make this open to all

Career-related learning in this phase should not be targeted at a particular group or groups (for example; girls, disengaged learners or high achievers) – instead it should be offered universally to all pupils in primary schools.

Embed career-related learning in the curriculum

Schools and senior leaders should make the relationship between career-related learning and the aims and ethos of the school explicit, thereby ensuring buy-in from curriculum staff, subject leaders and the senior leadership team.

Involve external organisations and employers

It is important that the person imparting knowledge about jobs and careers brings real-life, authentic experience of the workplace. When employers engage with children, they are perceived as having real authority and authenticity. Local schools should also focus on sharing best practice and signposting other schools in their network to organisations and programmes that can support the delivery of a consistent career-related programme. The evidence suggests that being able to draw on online and offline brokerage services can help to formalise connections to employers and give teachers the ability to invite volunteers from a wide range of backgrounds.

Start early

The literature has shown that perceptions about the suitability of different sectors and career paths are embedded in the minds of children from an early age. It is therefore important that career-related learning starts as early as age 5.

Ensure activities are age dependant

There is evidence to suggest that primary career-related activities are most effective when they are planned, delivered and adapted depending on the age group.


Our previous research in primary

These findings align with previous work undertaken in primary by Education and Employers Research. Earlier this year we published a review of research in the past 5 years which highlighted the importance of career-related learning in primary and evidenced why it is crucial to intervene in primary  with the aim of raising aspirations and broadening horizons.

Teachers tend to agree. Our recent survey, in partnership with Tes and the NAHT headteachers’ union, found that the majority of teachers believe that children should be learning about the world of work and different jobs in their first years of primary school. Nearly half (47 per cent) believed this should start from age five and under and that linking learning to the real world helped increase motivation, broaden aspirations and challenge gender stereotypes.

Download the report here.