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What do you want to be when you grow up?

February 14, 2022, 12:11 GMT+1
Read in 8 minutes
  • Starting to talk about jobs early will improve children’s career options later, says Katy Hampshire
What do you want to be when you grow up?

Some children seem to instinctively know what they want to be from a very young age.

My mum was one – a born teacher, she knew it from primary school and she had a long and successful career teaching maths to secondary school students.

I wasn’t so sure about my future career, but her influence on the importance of education and inspiring young people had an impact on me.

Many children don’t have the same access to role models representing a variety of jobs. I’ve heard numerous times over the past year from headteachers about children who have limited ideas about the range of possibilities open to them outside of their immediate neighbourhood.

For example, children in cities who struggle to write comprehensive exercises involving a ‘forest’ because they haven’t been to one. 

Talk about careers, enhance learning

Children are exposed to the world of work constantly, learning about jobs throughout primary school and even before – through TV shows, family members, books, and simply through their own experiences. They often just see a narrow range of roles, for example, a police officer, doctor and teacher. 

Children develop perceptions about jobs and those who do them, so we should ensure that any exploration is done in a careful, considered way that does not reduce the world of work to a few roles done by a few people. It must broaden children’s views and ideas about the opportunities and options available to them. 

Understanding the world of work, sometimes referred to as ‘career-related learning’ is not about providing careers advice, and it’s not the same as the careers learning at secondary school.

It’s not about choosing a pathway, defining a career goal or making any decisions about the future at all, but instead seeks to remove barriers and promote an open, positive attitude to different opportunities. 

Challenging stereotypes

Children start to develop ideas about what they can and can’t be from primary school age and it’s here that gaps can start to widen between those who have access to a wide range of role models and those that don’t. 

Primary school is also where children can start to close down options for themselves, either because they just don’t know about them or because they develop pre-conceived notions of who can do certain jobs. This can mean some children are unable to see the relevance of learning or particular subjects.

In the UK and internationally, the evidence is clear: the OECD has found that children as young as five already base their ‘dream jobs’ on gender norms, and the 2018 Drawing the Future report, which surveyed thousands of children from across the world, showed that seven-year-olds are forming stereotypes about the jobs people can do based on their ethnicity and socio-economic background.

Seeing role models from different backgrounds doing a range of jobs counters damaging stereotypes and shows children that their futures need not be dictated by what is commonly shown in the media or what they see around them.

When a female engineer goes into a school to tell children about her job, it doesn’t just show girls that they can work in a male-dominated sector, but it shows boys that women are successful in all different jobs and challenges pre-conceived ideas. 

Bringing learning to life

Enriching the curriculum with career-related learning helps to bring real-life context to schoolwork and improves children’s understanding of the importance of doing well in English, maths and science.

Following a career-related learning activity, one pupil said: “Meeting the volunteers has given me courage to know that I can make lots of things. I have also found out about lots more jobs. I think it gave me a boost in maths. If you’re engineering, you need to know your numbers, so I had better learn them!” 

This is all the more important in the context of the pandemic. “A key part of the solution to the post-Covid education recovery and challenging stereotypes is giving children access to role models from the world of work”, explains Karen Giles, headeacher at Barham Primary in Wembley.

“These role models can inspire, motivate and help children see why education is relevant.” 

Virtual learning practices have also opened up new ways of connecting with people from the world of work, enabling children to broaden their network of role models even further – a school in rural Cornwall can connect with a researcher in Edinburgh, and children in London can learn about agriculture from a volunteer in Yorkshire.

Virtual encounters offer a glimpse into areas of life children otherwise may not have the chance to explore through school trips: for example, a pilot might bring their laptop into an aeroplane cockpit, or a museum curator might show children a special archived collection.

Relatable role models

By opening up the circle of influences and role models, children gain a broader understanding of the opportunities they could strive towards and how they could use their talents and skills. 

Meeting relatable role models enables children to see success within reach for themselves, whereas meeting people with different, unfamiliar stories they wouldn’t usually encounter offers a window into new opportunities they hadn’t previously considered.

This helps to instil self-belief and a positive attitude towards the future, where children think, “I could do that too”. 

Widening access to these kinds of networks can benefit social mobility – and research points to career-related learning having an even greater benefit for children from disadvantaged backgrounds. 

Learning about jobs from a young age broadens children’s aspirations; it helps to remove limits they may have placed on their potential and shows them exciting futures to which they could aspire.

Take this quote from a child after meeting volunteers who talked about their careers: “My brother doesn’t have a job but when I grow up, I want to be really happy. I am going to be a really busy man! I could be a doctor, vet, builder, baker, artist, shopkeeper or chef! I can’t decide yet.”

Getting started with career-related learning

  • Start small: inviting one volunteer to talk to a class of children about their job can be just as effective as a large-scale event, and allows for valuable interaction
  • Find role models from the community: invite a parent or local businessperson to talk about their job
  • People are often pleased to be asked to share their stories and engage with children, and community links can develop further benefits beyond career-related learning
  • Access ready-made resources if you want to gauge children’s response before arranging a live chat with a volunteer, such as videos introducing people with different jobs
  • Organise virtual activities to complement project work – with our programme, Primary Futures, you can search thousands of volunteers across the country from a huge range of backgrounds


Katy Hampshire is the director of operations and programmes at Education and Employers, a charity working to improve young people’s life chances. The charity runs Primary Futures (Primaryfutures.org), a free programme enabling state primary schools to connect with a wide network of volunteers in different jobs.