Despite Spring peering bleary-eyed from under its duvet before ducking back into the womb-like warmth and muttering ‘five more minutes’, time rolls on nonetheless. That means for students up and down the land it’s time to get those Options forms handed in.
I’ve spent a fair bit of time this year talking with Year 9 about their Option choices. The first step involved getting an idea of what (if anything) the students had in mind for their careers. It’s a really good exercise to try for a school – there are some great insights into the thinking of students and gives a practical chance to guide students along. The process is not value-free however (I wrote here about some of the ethical issues around giving guidance), though thankfully in most cases the advice is simply to emphasise the importance to employers of English and Maths (I had to take a guess here and say aim for level 4 or 5). Except for a some specific cases the actual courses themselves are, well, not that important to employers and courses. Yet there are those handful of cases where students will benefit from being guided towards some choices.
A field of economics known as Information Asymmetry basically looks at the idea that when people make decisions some may have more information than others, leading them to make more rational choices about what is in their interests. It clashes with an idea embraced by some economists that people will always act in their own best interests since if everyone has access to the same information. That’s essentially the idea behind the Stock Market; companies do well and people invest in them, companies do poorly so less people invest in them. Part of reality seems to be though that some people have better information about stocks than others – an asymmetry of information. They know things other people don’t. That’s why hedge some fund manager will spend tomorrow morning eating swan’s eggs with caviar flavoured truffles while I’m grinding through osmosis in potatoes with Year 9. A classical economic approach suggests that all of the information is potentially available, but who really has either the time ability or connections to gather all of that information about a particular stock unless you are already well connected to the trading community? In the real world most of us are information poor about most things. We need help.
But how do you apply this idea to students? Knowing what we know as adults, should we pushing students a certain way? It doesn’t necessarily make sense to talk about rational decisions here without defining the intended outcome. Opportunity to make the most money? Happiness? A fulfilled creative life? Even these phrases are more open to interpretation than a Damien Hirst installation called “Postmodernism..?”. So what is driving the choices that students make?
A look back at my survey of Year 9 options reveals that the favourite careers are as follows:
- 1) Trades – About 14 % of the total. To be fair, this contained the category ‘engineer’, which although it covers a huge range of possible careers in the absence of anything more concrete I put them all in this category. Many expressed an interest in running their own company too.
- 2) Teacher – almost 12 % of students opted for this in some form. About a third of them specified Primary. History came out top among Secondary. No Science teachers…L
- 3) Business, including owning their own – I found this one surprising. There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm from students. Made life easier for me in being able to suggest Business GCSE.
- 4) The Police – including armed response unit and detective
Then there’s a whole bunch of things close together, with some interesting oddities such as Youtuber, Radio Host and Comedian. With many of these choices I suspect students have been highly influenced by the world around them. That includes family, ‘TV’ (do kids still watch TV?) and of course us, the humble teacher. All of this is fine and dandy. But there is a nagging doubt that students in other schools might be getting access to more. There’s an asymmetry of information that favours access or inside knowledge of those careers that are, how shall we say it, more influential in the world than others? Despite the championing of the few people who have been successful in areas like law, journalism and (modern) politics there is a clear disparity in numbers of students from state school backgrounds in these professions. You can’t really blame those students, schools or parents for doing what they think are in their best interests. As for the systems behind schools…Ebacc is an attempt to ‘nudge’ students towards courses that give a competitive advantage in some courses and jobs. I’m not convinced schools would need nudging if they weren’t responding to the perverse incentives in the system to not go for the more harshly graded subjects, so it seems to be a Government fix to a problem created by successive Governments. There is now the confusing situation where some (many?) left leaning educationalists are veering towards an individual choice and laissez-faire approach and some right-leaning educators are promoting a common approach for all.
The current job market could be viewed pretty negatively from the perspective of current students. They are exposed to it constantly from their families and media. Whether our current school systems are fit for purpose remains to be seen. The well-intentioned, if flimsy, claims of 21st century skills may find themselves drawn back into the fold as the Mumakil in the room of workplace automation nibbles at the edges of the job market. Should we be then pushing students towards careers options that are future and robot-proof? I think not. The liberal style education with access to all subjects is still the best defence against an uncertain future. Deservedly or not, English and Maths are still the most important subjects for most students. Sure, if a student wants to be a Vet than I’m going to suggest Triple Science or Law at Oxbridge I’d highlight languages, but in most cases at GCSE level courses aren’t that big a deal. Students deserve access to impartial and effective advice on their career choices. If that means pointing out that they may be better off taking certain subjects, do certain types of work experience or going all out for apprenticeships then so be it.