Michael Goode is a school governor and has been a young offenders mentor since 2017.

When school children are inspired and informed about the world of work they study harder, place a greater value on their subjects and are more engaged. This is especially true for underperforming students. Inspirational sessions with employers can also result in higher earning potentials and fewer young people becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training).

Put simply, what children think they want to be when they grow up and how they reached those aspirations matters. Yet there is a serious inspiration gap between the schools doing an excellent job of expanding pupils’ horizons, through exposing them to a variety of careers, and those that are not.

Its scale is significant. When asking children what they want to do when they grow up, research in 2018 showed that about half expect to work in one of only ten jobs. Many of these (teachers, doctors, vets etc.) are typically grounded in a nineteenth or twentieth century view of the professions.

Research from 2020 also highlighted the disconnect between pupils aspirations and our economy, showing that over five times as many 17 and 18 year olds wanted to work in art, culture, entertainment and sport as there were jobs available. Nor are these career ambitions future-proofed, given that over 30 per cent of the jobs that UK teenagers want are at high risk of automation.

I have seen for myself what it is like to be on the wrong end of this inspiration gap. I went to a failing secondary school (now merged) where around 70 per cent of the students didn’t get their five A-Cs at GCSE. 

I was later told that I was the first person from that school to go to the University of Cambridge, which was shocking, given how bright so many of my classmates were. Looking back, I can see how little we had in terms of inspiration. We simply didn’t know what jobs were out there, what we could aim for, or how that would be affected by our grades.

At best, it was: “good grades will get you into a good university,” but there was no horizon beyond that point or alternative view of success. I remember discussing plans with classmates and hearing answers like “‘Ill work for my uncle so don’t need to study” or “I just want a family and will get a flat”.

Everyone is entitled to their own life plan but there was nothing to invite us to expand our horizons. We were all just left to reach our own conclusions. It sounds funny, but I remember thinking hard about what people would always need and settling on being a shoemaker.

Few of us become what we wanted to be at school (I’m not a shoemaker or an astronaut), but those initial aspirations shape our perception of what we can be and our appreciation of the value of education. And it is not hard to understand why survey after survey still show children having stereotyped and out of touch aspirations.

All this means that children on the wrong end of the inspiration gap are leaving school with limited or warped career expectations expectations which, crucially, have been built almost entirely outside of school.

Policy makers increasingly recognises this. One recent, substantial improvement is Ofsted’s inclusion of the Gatsby Benchmarks (tried and tested principles for expanding pupils’ horizons) in their inspection guidance.

Another is the establishment of the Careers and Enterprise Company, a national network designed to facilitate careers education and support schools.

But there is much more work to be done to ensure that career inspiration is at the heart of every child’s school experience. Especially because, as the Prince’s Trust has found, the disruption, uncertainty and misery of the last 16 months has affected young people’s aspirations.

The job to do now is to close this inspiration gap. The research shows that the best way to achieve this is to ensure all schools act early and often, showcasing different career paths and using these sessions to have broader conversations about jobs.

To do this we need to –

  • Make employee and career engagement an independent section in any Ofsted report;
  • Update Ofsted guidance to require schools to work with their Local Enterprise Partnership on employee engagement plans which are grounded in the area’s economy and future job needs;
  • Set out new guidance encouraging schools to use digital conferencing technology to connect with employers outside of their region;
  • Change Ofsted guidance to mandate termly opportunities for pupils to encounter the world of work, primarily through guest speakers and –
  • Update guidance to stress that inspiring employer engagement sessions must come before lessons around CV writing skills or training pathways.

None of this should add appreciable cost to the taxpayer, especially given the plethora of programmes out there designed to help pupils engage with different careers and industries.

The organisation Education and Employers has a fantastic program called Inspiring the Future and is leading the work in this field, while other initiatives focus on specific sectors: I volunteered for a program called Feeding Britain’s Future, which works to explain to students what careers exist in the food industry, while also providing general interview guidance and CV writing skills. One good side-effect of the lockdowns is that schools now have far more digital conferencing technology, which means volunteering takes less time and can reach pupils across geographical boundaries. There is plenty of goodwill and many programmes to tap into.

And for those of you thinking about volunteering, or perhaps with lingering doubts about the importance of this gap, I have seen for myself as a prison mentor how important inspiration is. Helping young offenders dream of a career on the outside, getting them fired up, and then building a plan to achieve that goal has been the most powerful tool in helping them feel that there is something tangible to roll their sleeves up and work for. What’s disheartening is that many certainly did not have this at school.

No young person should leave school, as my classmates did, without a good understanding of what jobs are out there and what they could do to get to them. Fantastic work has been done in this area, but an inspiration gap remains. That gap takes on a new importance, given how the past 16 months have disrupted education and dampened young peoples’ aspirations.

Let’s close this gap by connecting pupils to the world of work, expanding their horizons, and inspiring them to make the very best use of their time studying, confident that there is something to work for.