Don't listen to the teacher

June 4, 1999

Think of an engineer and what springs to mind? A graduate doing a white-collar job or the person who repairs dead vacuum cleaners?

Most of the primary and secondary teachers questioned by researchers from Southampton University subscribed to the second view when asked about their career perceptions.

"Many were unaware that professions such as engineering and nursing had graduate entry," said Nick Foskett from Southampton's research and graduate school of education. "Class teachers are key players in shaping children's perceptions, although not all are directly involved in giving careers guidance. We assume that teachers know everything about everything, but very often their perceptions are distorted."

Direct guidance is not all that informs children's career decisions. General information about roles and status implied in ordinary discussions is just as influential. "The teachers we surveyed saw nursing as being very physical but not at all intellectually demanding," said Dr Foskett. "Children have a relative deafness which comes from contact with parents and teachers. At a very early age they informally decide which areas they do not want to work in."

This situation is not helped, Dr Foskett added, by the invisibility of some careers. "Take actuaries for example. Very few people know what they do because they have never been exposed to them."

However, a remedy will not be found by burdening teachers with additional career guidance responsibilities. The Southampton researchers recommend instead that the new citizenship proposals include an element of employment education. "We cannot ask class teachers to do more and more. The careers service already does a good job with limited resources but they can only provide children with selective information on demand," said Dr Foskett.

He said improvements can only be made if a broad, open-minded approach is adopted towards careers guidance. "Class teachers must be aware of the world of work and must try to avoid old fashioned images, like the oily rag."

Dr Foskett believes that primary school children in particular would benefit from increased guidance. "By the time children reach 15 or 16 they have already made up their minds about a certain career path, so it doesn't matter what you say to them."

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