Starting Early: Building the foundations for success – Executive Summary

This report makes the case for career-related learning in primary schools, based on new in-depth research, the testimony of some 1,000 teachers and 10,000 children, insights from sector leaders like the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), and a growing international research base on what works and why.

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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. Aspirations are narrow and out-of-sync with labour market demands. Career aspirations are also surprisingly persistent over time, similar at age 17-18 as among primary school children. Aspirations ultimately only resolve in later harsh entries to the labour market, as supply jarringly adjusts to demand. These narrow, stereotyped views lead to a steep cost in economic prosperity, occupational diversity, and individual career fulfilment.

This report provides the evidence behind 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.

Why career-related learning matters in primary schools

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.

Activities in primary schools look different to the career education that may be familiar in secondary schools. The emphasis in primary is on diversity, exploration, and making learning fun. Activities excite children about the subjects they are doing and show them the relevance to their futures.

The question is not whether “career-related learning” should start at the primary age. We already know young children are playing, thinking, and talking about jobs – the experiences, interactions, and questions that drive this behaviour can hardly be prevented even if we wanted to. The question is whether we actively support such learning through the school system. Schools can introduce more diverse experiences to more children, especially those with fewer chance encounters in their day-today life, and frame those experiences in positive, constructive ways.

The potential of career-related learning in primary schools is far greater than today’s practice. Education and Employers supports teachers to organise events and surveys show this support is often the first time that teachers have engaged employers in a structured way to support learning. Teachers frequently go on to organise their own events, but help getting started is essential. There is no dedicated, ongoing central government funding for primary schools to do this, unlike the support provided at secondary schools. The appetite and ambition is there in communities, but national strategy, guidance, and funding is needed to translate it into transformative impact.

To understand the potential of career-related learning in the future, we start with its history, exploring how policy has evolved in the UK to the tentative promise of the present day, with government support for pilots and small-scale programmes. We then present statistical evidence and case studies, underpinning the benefits listed above, drawing on randomised control trials, dosage response analyses, and comparison group research. Our report closes by summarising the principles that underpin good practice, addressing questions around support for staff, the potential of virtual events, and how young career-related learning might usefully begin.

The history of career-related learning in primary schools

Primary schools have always sought to provide enriching environments for children, introducing them to how society functions and the different roles available to play in it. Policy support has, however, only traditionally identified career-related learning as a distinct priority in secondary and tertiary education. The last two decades have seen a growing call for greater formalisation and support for primary schools, drawing on grass-roots practice, experimental suggestions from pathfinder programmes, and recommendations in government-commissioned reports.

In its 2017 Careers Strategy, the Department for Education in England made a landmark decision to fund pilot initiatives in primary education. Primary Futures, as founded formally in 2014 by Education and Employers and the NAHT, was the largest programme scaled up in this new fund, with the additional funding enabling it to reach over 67,000 more primary aged pupils. Recent Secretaries of State for Education have themselves attended events as volunteers, introducing their career journeys and the work of government to primary aged children.

Career-related learning remains non-statutory at primary age, but there is widespread enthusiasm
among schools and teachers for increasing provision. Recent innovations in virtual live and prerecorded events with interactive activities, prompted by the ongoing pandemic, point a pathway towards low-cost, blended delivery to provide nationwide coverage, unconstrained by the limits of local geography.

Evidence of impact: Empowering educators

Extensive pupil testimony and teacher experience claim that career-related learning can help children broaden their horizons, overcome stereotypes, and become more motivated in class. This evidence has been seen in multiple surveys since 2014, gathering the ideas of around 1,000 teachers and 10,000 children, underpinned by case study insights and qualitative discussions. Example findings include:

  • 90% of primary school teachers reported in 2017 that ‘involvement in activities with employers’ could impact the academic achievement of pupils.
  • In 2018, the top three outcomes for teachers were challenging gender stereotypes, bringing learning to life, and broadening children’s aspirations – supported by 97%+ of respondents (with 60%+ strongly agreeing).
  • After participating in a career-related learning event, 82% of around 9,300 children agreed that “I now understand how learning Maths/English/Science can be useful in many jobs”.
  • Out of some 1,200 children in schools with most economically disadvantaged students, 78% said “I now know there are lots of jobs available to me when I grow up” and 74% said “I feel more confident in what I can do after today’s activity”.
  • After a single day’s activities, 25% of 7,900 children even said it had changed their mind about their future job interests – with a further 25% saying it might have done.
  • The importance of early intervention can be seen in the persistence of preferences and stereotypes in career aspirations: sector and status preferences at seven-year olds are often surprisingly similar to those of 18-year olds.

Statistical research evidence of primary age programmes from around the world reinforces pupil testimony and teacher experience about positive impacts:

  • A randomised control trial of primary age enterprise education in the Netherlands shows gains in areas like self-efficacy, persistence, and creativity.
  • Benefits in areas like career aspirations, attendance, and attainment, particularly for disadvantaged pupils, were identified in an analysis of around 5,000 9-10 year olds in the UK comparing intervention schools against control group schools.
  • A series of US studies relate improved career-related learning and counselling with higher grades in standardised tests, with example increases of c. 6%pts in proficiency rates in English and Maths compared to similar schools that did not implement the programme.
  • A survey of almost 10,000 primary children showed that the more career-related learning pupils had done – and the more jobs they had heard about – the more likely they were to have a job they were interested in for the future and the more positive they felt about school subjects.
  • In pre/post analysis of primary children aged 6-11 in England, participating in career-related learning helped children to reject stereotypes around STEM and gender equality, increased confidence in the usefulness of school, and enhanced motivation to try their best.

Career-related learning has long been understudied by researchers, reflecting the historical focus of academic funding, limited programmatic scale, and idiosyncratic research interests. The studies above provide empirical grounds to believe teachers and children when they say it helps, but they cannot conclusively demonstrate long-term impact. But with this research in place, we are perhaps in a position to shift the burden of proof. Those who believe careers-related learning does not help primary aged children should be asked to source the evidence behind their claims.

There is much we do not understand and much we cannot precisely quantify. But we are confident in calling for large-scale, longitudinal, comparison-group research. Researchers and funders are invited to track early career-related learning activities through to secondary school transitions and future labour market outcomes. Such research will enable us to better understand the long-term economic value of such activities, how specific activities combine with each other and with other school practices to generate outcomes, and how to enhance benefits for the most disadvantaged groups.

Good practice guidelines

Recent research undertaken by Education and Employers for The Careers & Enterprise Company and for Teach First reveals key elements of good career-related learning. These include: successful leadership, making it open to all, embedding career-related learning in the curriculum, involving external organisations and employers, starting early, and ensuring activities are age appropriate. Support for continuing professional development for teachers and other school staff is a key thread throughout career-related learning. None of this activity works if schools do not believe in it or get the most out of it, integrating employer and volunteer support into day-to-day activities.

Call to action

Volunteers from the world of work are a foundation stone of rich career-related learning in primary, bringing authentic voices, diverse roles, props, and stories that excite children about the future. The challenges that teachers face in trying to connect with large numbers of diverse volunteers and employers alongside busy teaching days, especially volunteers outside their area, mean this is a key area where practice support is needed.

The Primary Futures platform provides such support. It is a sustainable, scalable, cost effective self-serve model in which teachers take the lead on running career-related learning events with a wide range of volunteers from the world of work – people from all levels – apprentices to CEOs; from all sectors – app designers to zoologists and from a wide range of social, economic and ethnic backgrounds. Teachers can recruit volunteers quickly and easily via the state-of-the-art platform and use resources other teachers have helped develop to plan and manage events. Provided annual costs for IT maintenance and user support are covered, teachers and the enthusiasm of volunteers can do the rest.

But to get to this point, we need a culture change in primary schools, empowering and supporting them to use the platform and to understand its role in career-related learning. In a recent baseline survey for Primary Futures, 76% of the participating primary schools said they usually invite volunteers from the world of work via methods that reach only restricted audiences and take a lot of time to coordinate: informal networks, such as parents and friends, or asking volunteers directly via social media or letters. Only 9% used online match-making services like Primary Futures to reach diverse audiences of potential volunteers at scale.

We now know what it takes to empower and support teachers. Thanks to funding from the Department for Education in England Primary Fund via The Careers & Enterprise Company, Education and Employers have been able to undertake the largest ever study of primary-age career-related learning. The focus was on getting a better understanding of the impact of interventions at primary age and to see how the Primary Futures programme could be scaled up and rolled out nationally. The evaluation which has just been completed shows that, once schools have been supported to work with the platform, it becomes self-sustaining: 94% of teachers would recommend the platform to colleagues and 81% said they would feel confident using the platform on their own to organise events in the future. But with over 20,000 primary schools in the UK, we are only at the start of this journey.

Read the full report.