The Gatsby Benchmarks are highly laudable and worthwhile, however there is a danger that they become just a “tick box” exercise through which schools and colleges evidence they have done their duty. I would argue that the benchmarks are just a starting point for careers work, one which should see us going further and thinking more creatively, to really help our young people aspire.
A particular bone of contention for me are career fairs and open days which can sap the will from young people, stall holders and teachers alike if outcomes are not planned carefully. In the worst-case scenarios, no one knows why they are there or what is meant to be achieved. Students have not been briefed and neither have those behind the stalls, nor the teachers taking the students round. A dull day is the minimal risk here, whilst the greatest risk is turning young people off careers which, if presented differently, could have inspired them.
When I reflect on my own experiences of such occasions, the one which sticks in my mind is the open day at the college I went to at sixteen years old. Each stand was unique and had “things” which reeled you in; interesting displays and objects related to the courses and jobs associated with those courses. For me, it was a colourful five-foot-tall mask made from cardboard and paper on the Art & Design table that caught me! I recall clearly that those on the stands were standing in front of each table, were welcoming, and encouraging those looking around to “come on over and have a chat”. No one was hiding behind the tables, and no one looked bored or disinterested. Later, a tour of the site by students at the college, and seeing work produced by the students, clinched the deal for me. I can recall seeing a set of hands which had been drawn in pencil and thinking, “I want to be able to draw like that; if I come here maybe I will be able to”. Inspiration and aspiration all wrapped up together in a bundle; over twenty-seven years later that event sticks in my mind.
At too many open days, there is a now an empty table with some course guides and a bored person sitting there. Perhaps some “freebies” to give away and a leaflet. Where is the ticket to aspiration? We can and should think differently at our events. Students want to see what their courses or careers could be like; to be inspired. Why can’t they see bricklayers laying bricks or travel and tourism students working as tour guides? If there is a film course, are there cameras available to look through?
We should also consider whether we are meeting the needs of all our young people, including those with SEND. One of the best things I saw this year was an event at Highworth Grammar School, where there was a “quiet” time in the day for students with SEND to talk to stall holders at the careers fair. I mentioned this to my son (who has autism) when I got home – he thought this was brilliant. Surely this is an easy win at all career fairs and even open days. Many museums now have autism friendly times, where the lights are less bright, the activities less noisy, so that those with additional needs can take part and be included.
I often hear schools saying how difficult it is to get lots of employers in on one day, particularly post-Covid. If this is the case, consider splitting things down. Consider micro-events; for example, gather all the students interested in Law across all year groups and take them off timetable for an afternoon or an hour (much like you would if they each had a careers interview with their careers adviser). You could bring in a Lawyer to talk about their job and to also run an activity with them, drawing on their skills, such as running an ethical debate.
If this is too much, bring individual employers in to talk to a selected pool of students (who have been prepared) that wish to ask questions and find out more. This is a particularly useful approach for those who are less confident (students and employers alike).
Alternatively, within weekly assemblies bring in guest speakers to talk about their jobs (even for ten minutes). These could come from ex-students you’ve stayed in contact with (alumni) or parents/carers. One of the criticisms I hear from students at careers fairs is, “where are the trades?” Often, they are unrepresented, as many are self-employed, and therefore must work. Most can’t afford to take a whole day off, however some can spare half an hour to talk at the start of a day.
Which brings me on to aspiration itself. There is a danger that we see “aspiration” as just talking about the professions and weight our career events accordingly. There is huge danger here of structural bias and sending a message that a “career” must be a certain thing which students should aspire to accordingly. I recall one student who was the daughter of a teacher, who aspired to be a teaching assistant. When I discussed with her why she didn’t wish to be a teacher, it was because she had first-hand experience of how hard teachers work and what they sacrifice of their own time. She wanted more time for herself and her hobbies. We explored the different aspects of this and in doing so weighed up the various angles, yet ultimately, she had thought carefully and made a choice based on her values.
In a similar but different vein, I worked with an A-Level student who aspired to be a groundworker and to set up his own construction business. He had no contacts in the industry, as his family and their friends were in finance. We explored ways he could get into the industry and make contacts to test out his ideas. We often discuss widening participation for our young people in the context of the professions, particularly those who don’t have access to the social networks to help them access these. We need to go beyond this as a paradigm and consider these values more holistically, such as with this student, whose barriers to accessing construction as a career were similar but different.
Aspiration is a nuanced thing and unique to each of us. Some students will aspire to the professions and others will aspire to one of the myriad other opportunities that are out there. If our career fairs are intended to provide inspiration, we must make sure they are indicative of the widest possible range of opportunities, so they don’t send an unintended message to our young people of a “career” being only one type of job or life path.
We should ensure events are varied, purposeful and clear in their aims and objectives with regards what they are seeking to achieve. If we cannot provide a wide range of inspiration at a single event we should think creatively, to create opportunities to ensure our young people are exposed to the widest possible range of options to help them aspire.
Chris Targett, Careers Adviser & Area Manager, CXK Careers Service