Starting early – the importance of career-related learning in primary school

This article is an extended version of the blog Primary career education should broaden children’s horizons by Nick Chambers (CEO, Education and Employers) published by TES on 14 November 2018.

The last few months have seen a sudden interest and enthusiasm for ‘careers education’ in primary schools. But many teachers and parents have expressed their concerns that we risk making our children ‘grow up too fast’ at such a young age. They are understandably concerned about the dangers of directing children towards a particular career or job at a time when their aspirations should be very tentative and wide-ranging. I share their concerns.

Earlier this year the Department for Education published its Careers Strategy[1]. It mentioned primary for the first time and acknowledged that many schools were already thinking about how best to introduce children to ideas about the work they might want to do in the future. And in the last few months, the OECD has also stressed that schools should encourage a first-hand understanding of the world of work from the earliest years[2].

This increasing focus on careers in primary is to be welcomed and builds on research by several leading academics, as well as the work carried out by Education and Employers in partnership with the National Association of Head Teachers over the last six years.

Isn’t primary too young to talk about careers?

The term ‘careers’ means different things to different people, encompassing work-related learning (types of work, developing skills for and through work); careers education (self-development, exploration, and management) and careers information, advice and guidance.  Given this ambiguity, there is often alarm when people hear or read the word ‘careers’ in the same sentence as primary schools.

We should not be providing careers advice in primary schools but instead focussing on broadening horizons and raising aspirations, giving children a wide range of experiences of the world including the world of work. It is about opening doors, showing children the vast range of possibilities open to them and helping to keep their options open for as long as possible. And there is a range of attributes, skills, and behaviours that can be encouraged in this early stage of a child’s life that will leave them in the best possible position as they begin their transitions to secondary education and to future life.

Robert Halfon MP and Chair of the Education Select Committee was spot on in his recent TES article when he said that “The impact of early engagement can have a hugely positive impact on wider academic attainment, motivating and inspiring both children and their families, by helping them to see a future to which they can aspire and which feels achievable[3]

In primary, the focus for schools and teachers shouldn’t be on ‘careers advice’ but on ‘career-related learning’.

 Why is it important?

When thinking about what impact career-related learning can have, who better to ask than the teachers and school leaders that actually organise and experience these activities. Our recent survey, published in partnership with TES and the NAHT, asked primary teachers why introducing children to the world of work at an early age was important. It found that:

  • The majority of teachers believe children should be learning about the world of work and different jobs in their first years of primary school.
  • Nearly half (47%) believe this should start from age 5 and under
  • A further 21% believe this should start from age 5 – 7 in year 1 and 2
  • The overwhelming majority of primary schools were already carrying out a variety of activities with the aim of increasing children’s understanding of the world of work.

And nearly all agreed that introducing children to the world of work was important in:

  • Linking learning to the real world and in doing so increasing motivation to work hard bringing more relevance to their learning
  • Challenging gender stereotyping about jobs and school subjects
  • Broadening aspirations

Volunteer taking part in a classroom career insight talk

Link to attainment

Another of our surveys, published in 2017 with the NAHT, showed for the first time that giving children the chance to meet people from the world of work and hearing about their life journeys can help them understand the relevance of subjects they are studying – and in so doing improve motivation and attainment. 90% of teachers thought that pupil achievement can improve as the result of:

  • volunteers of the world of work helping pupils to believe in their own abilities and helping them to understand what life is like beyond the classroom
  • increased motivation following exposure to role models from the world of work (adults other than teachers) interested in them and their learning
  • children being given the opportunity to develop knowledge and skills in addition to the mainstream curriculum by exposure to the world of work

Tackling stereotypes

Despite the fact that women today are employed in greater numbers and in a wider range of roles and occupations than ever before, children still tend to think of particular careers as ‘male’ or ‘female’. The reality of gender stereotyping starting at a young age was bought to wide attention by a very simple two-minute film called Redraw the Balance viewed over 75 million times, shows 66 children being asked to draw a picture of a surgeon, firefighter and a pilot. 61 of the children drew a picture of a man with only five drawing a woman.

Drawing the Future

Earlier this year we tried to build on this by exploring who primary-age children ideally want to become, and, what shapes (and often limits) their career aspirations and dreams for the future. Drawing the Future,[4] asked children aged seven to 11 to draw a picture of the job they want to do when they grow up. Over 13,000 children took part in the UK and it was clear that from a young age many children had ideas about careers. 36% of children from as young as seven years old, base their career aspirations on people they know. For those who didn’t know anyone who did the job they drew, 45% stated that TV, film, and radio were the biggest factors influencing their choice.

Meanwhile, less than 1% of children knew about a job from someone visiting their school. This has huge implications for social mobility, as children from poorer backgrounds may not have access to successful role models from the world of work and their aspirations are limited as a result.

All children regardless of their background should get the chance to meet a wide range of people doing different jobs, in different sectors and at different levels – from apprentices to CEOs.

This is essential if we are to improve social mobility and gender and ethnic equality. It is vital we support children to challenge the perceptions they may have about certain jobs and to better understand the evolving world they are growing up in while they are still in primary school[5].


It is often said that children from disadvantaged background lack aspirations but “many children’s horizons are limited by who they or their parents know. You can’t blame them for that. But we do. We say they lack aspiration. It’s their own fault really. If only they were more aspirational, they’d succeed[6] says TES’s Editor Ann Mroz.  If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.

As a recent article from Nesta said: “Children’s conceptions of who they are and what they could be are products of their wider socio-economic surroundings: influenced by social (who their families and friends are) and cultural capital (what they consider a reasonable and possible future to be”)[7].

Volunteers taking in part in a Primary Futures ‘What’s My Line’ activity where children ask them questions to try and work out what job they do

Making it easy

Whilst teachers appreciate the importance and the benefits to children of career-related learning many cited that the lack of time and availability of volunteers are preventing them from doing more[8].

The NAHT has taken a lead to tackle this and created Primary Futures in partnership with the Education and Employers charity.

Emma Fieldhouse from South Parade Primary school in Wakefield explains why her school got involved: “It was amazing to see the children talking and listening to the volunteers, and each other, as they begin to make the link between what they do in school every day and the exciting world of the future where they will be the next scientists, teachers, politicians, vets”.

Andy Mellor, President of the NAHT said “Over the last five years the NAHT has undertaken a number of studies to understand what works best in primary schools. It is clear from our work that career-related learning programmes in primary that are well planned and demonstrate the hallmarks listed below have considerable positive impacts for children. Our Primary Futures programme, developed for teachers by teachers, makes it really easy for schools to find suitable volunteers to enrich and improve their career-related learning activities”.

Hallmarks of success

As part of the Primary Futures programme, I have visited a large number of primary schools across the UK and further afield and seen first-hand the different ways in which they deliver career-related learning. These ‘hallmarks of success’ outline the outcomes and activities that primary schools should aim for and provide when delivering career-related learning:


  1. Excite and motivate children about their learning by linking and embedding in the curriculum strong connections between education and the world of work
  2. Broaden children’s horizons and raise aspiration
  3. Help children see a clear link and purpose between their learning experiences and their future
  4. Challenge stereotypes that children and their parents often have about jobs and the people who do them
  5. Support the raising of standards of achievement and attainment for all children
  6. Help children learn more about their own talents and abilities and instill greater confidence
  7. Reinforce the importance of numeracy and literacy in later life
  8. Tailor career-related learning to the different ages and needs of all children


  1. Invite volunteers from the world of work to visit and chat with children
  2. Deliver career-related learning programmes that help children connect their subject learning to the opportunities now and in the future
  3. Organise career-related learning trips e.g. to a workplace, museum or university
  4. Make good use of online learning materials in the classroom such as games, videos, role play, and individual/ group activities
  5. Explore the diverse routes adults have taken to get their current job e.g. vocational (Inc. apprenticeships), academic, starting their own business etc.

If you have any feedback or learnings from what has worked well in your school, please do get in touch.

Nick Chambers
2nd November 2018


[2] Musset, P., and Mytna Kurekova, L. (2018). Working it out: Career Guidance and Employer Engagement. OECD Education Working Papers, 175. Paris:  OECD Publishing.


[4] Chambers, N., Redhill, J., Kashefpakdel, E. T. & Percy, C. (2018). Drawing the Future: Exploring the career aspirations of primary school children from around the world. London: Education and Employers




[8] Mann, Iredale and Kashefpakdel 2017: