Why are children’s futures being limited?

By the age of seven the career ambitions of children are already being limited – and the root of this lies in education

A report from the OECD international economies think tank has revealed that gender, race and socioeconomic background still place restrictions on career ambitions.

The report suggested that by age seven, these factors are already ingrained in the child and that there are ‘minimal changes’ in thoughts towards career options between the ages of seven and 17.

Andreas Schleicher, the OECD’s director of education and skills, said that children already begin to make assumptions about what career they themselves and their peers will do whilst they are still in primary school.

The report suggested that many young people believe that the jobs that are already familiar to them, for example the ones they witness their families do, are the only jobs available to them. Other influences include the jobs they see in the media and the type of work they see as most likely for people of their gender and background.

“You can’t be what you can’t see. We’re not saying seven-year-olds have to choose their careers now but we must fight to keep their horizons open,” said Schleicher.

One of the sectors in which the gender divide is most prevalent is STEM. As discussed in a previous article, girls are beginning to close the STEM gender gap but it is still a very male-dominated sector.

Research by Microsoft surveyed 11,500 women between the ages of 11 and 30 in 12 countries across Europe about their attitudes to STEM. This unique insight found that most girls become interested in STEM at the age of 11-and-a-half, although most lose interest by age 15; reasons for this include a lack of female role models in the industry and not enough practical, hands-on experience in primary and high schools.

Just 42% of girls surveyed said they would consider a STEM-related career while 60% admitted they would feel more confident pursuing a career in STEM fields if they knew men and women were equally employed in those professions.

Schleicher and the Education and Employers’ careers charity believe that, in order to change this thought process, schools must do more. As a result, the charity is making efforts to bring people from the world of work into schools, with the aim of widening access to the jobs market and raising aspirations.

“It’s a question of social justice, and common sense, to tackle ingrained assumptions as early as possible or they will be very tough to unpick later on,” said Schleicher.

The charity has announced plans to double the number of people who go into schools and talk about their jobs and career paths. Currently, there are more than 50,000 volunteers who give up their time to go into schools and talk to children about their careers. The charity hopes that, by raising the number to more than 100,000 volunteers, the restrictions of social mobility may be lifted.

“The importance of exposure to the world of work at primary age cannot be overstated,” said Paul Whiteman, leader of the National Association of Head Teachers. “The  earlier children’s aspirations are raised and broadened, the better.”

The findings of the report clearly demonstrate the impact that both economic status and gender have on job aspirations. In primary school, boys from wealthier homes are more likely to expect to become lawyers or managers while girls from deprived backgrounds are expecting to go into hairdressing or shop work.

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