Wednesday Wisdom

June 26, 2024

Navigating Futures

By Jonathan Tinnacher

Navigating Futures

Reflect

This week, Wednesday Wisdom is written by Jonathan Tinnacher, founder of www.betterunichoices.com. Jonathan spent 20 years working in university recruitment and admissions at universities such as Imperial College and Loughborough, before joining the founders of Unibuddy and launching the world's largest university peer-to-peer chat tool.

Over my 20 years working in university recruitment and admissions, I used to spend a lot of evenings attending school careers and university fairs. More often than not, a super-keen couple would drag their 11 year old to the stand and say something like,“Our son Andrew wants to study accountancy at university. What advice do you have for him?”

I’d generally advise Andrew, and countless others like him, to concentrate on reading, writing and maths, and to take subjects he finds interesting and is good at. But what Andrew and I both knew is that he had literally no interest in studying accountancy, and even less interest in talking to me. This conversation was for his parents, and his parents alone.

It’s perfectly natural, you see, for parents to want their children to make great decisions on their careers and university choices. You’ve been supporting them all the way so far, making pretty much all crucial life decisions for them; choosing where they live, what school they go to, what religion they practise, and so on. The obvious thing to do is to continue this, to help them choose a career, and to get them the university education they need to succeed. Right?

Well, of course it simply doesn’t work out that way. The more you try to steer their path, the more they push back. The more you push them for a decision, the less inclined they will be to make one.

So how do you find the right balance? To help them understand and explore different types of study and career opportunities, without forcing them to decide when they are not ready? To be supportive and helpful, providing practical assistance and an experienced steering hand, whilst not being overly prescriptive?

Whether you know all about universities, having been yourself or having gone through the process with older children, or whether you know nothing at all about it, these can be stressful times, potentially creating real challenges and friction between you and your child.

If this sounds like you, read on…

Motivate

The first step in supporting your children with careers and university choices is knowing that you are not on your own. Schools, largely, have got this covered!

Increasingly, careers work is being introduced at a pretty early age. Right now there is a move to start careers learning in primary schools, and whilst not universal by any means, it is a growing trend.

The authors of What Works? Career-Related Learning in Primary Schools point out that careers education plays a critical role in broadening horizons and raising aspirations, as pupils can be exposed to opportunities that they wouldn’t otherwise see in their daily lives. It can also help challenge the more common cultural stereotypes which can prevent children and young people from seeing themselves in certain types of work. But, they stress: “Career-related learning is not about asking eight-year olds what they want to do in the future - children must be allowed their childhood… It is work that builds on children’s growing awareness of themselves and the world of work, and weaves what they know into useful learning for now and later.”

This type of approach tends to carry through into early secondary school. Virtually every secondary school in the UK is aiming to achieve something called the Gatsby Benchmarks. These are eight principles of careers guidance, covering everything from career and labour market information and links with employers, further education and universities, to work experience and personal guidance. Not every school meets every benchmark, but, typically, they will all have a programme of careers activity from Year 9 through to Year 11. This will differ from setting to setting.

Whilst in Year 9, schools won’t be encouraging students to start to make career or university choices just yet, they might offer workshops to help young people get to grips with what a career actually is, understand different career sectors and the different roles within them, and even start to look at what skills might be needed for these different roles. These activities might be accompanied by guest speakers (perhaps parents or former students who have gone on to work in different sectors), or even visits by, or to, universities.

In Year 10, pupils are often encouraged to consider their own strengths and traits through skills- and career-focused psychometric testing. They might be given the opportunity to take aptitude tests, such as those offered by My Future Choice, or introduced to personality tests, such as the Myers-Briggs based Buzz Quiz. These initiatives attempt to help students begin to reflect on their own interests and aptitudes, and introduce roles and careers that might suit them.

During Year 11, schools tend to focus in, introducing more specific careers skills education, such as how to fill in job applications or create a CV. Typically, this forms part of students’ preparations for work experience, very often at the end of Year 11. Work experience may or may not be in an area directly relevant to their choices, but can be a hugely worthwhile way for teens to gain insight into the world of work. At this point, schools will also start to introduce where a university degree might help in accessing different careers, and to link school studies to careers and university choices, so that students can make good, informed choices about their A-levels, BTEC, IB, or equivalent.

Students will almost certainly have at least one 1-2-1 meeting with a qualified careers adviser during this time. Their role is to guide young people through the enormous range of options, helping them to reflect on their strengths and interests, open up ideas for future work, and identify skills they might look to develop.

During Years 9, 10 and 11, students and parents are typically invited to an annual careers and university fair which provides an opportunity to meet local employers and universities to explore different options.

In Years 12 and 13, schools really start to ramp up their careers and transition support. They’ll probably take pupils to a UCAS Discovery exhibition, or a university taster day. Increasingly, students are also given information about apprenticeships; though some caution is advised here, as the number of school-leaver apprenticeships is limited, and staff are generally less well-informed.

Many schools will have bought access to a platform called Unifrog which features vast amounts  of information about universities and careers. Some resources within the platform are for schools to deliver in a structured format, while others are available directly for students. Parents are often given a login too.

At the end of Year 12, schools generally have some type of ‘next steps’ event, and it is at this stage that pupils will be expected to start to firm up their choices. For some, they’ll be pretty confident of a career that interests them at this point. Others will want to explore and build their education beyond school in a way that makes sense to them.

Throughout Year 13, schools focus on supporting pupils to make their applications, and while there will still be some assistance with  decision-making for courses, if most schools are honest, they don’t have much time for guidance at this stage; it's all about hitting the application deadlines!

Support

So, how do you, as parents, have sensible career and university focused conversations with your child that can support and fit in with the wider work they’ll be doing at school?

Well, as a basic, I’d hope that every parent wants to understand the following about their child: Are they an academic student, or are they more practically minded? Do they enjoy the classroom, or prefer to be doing something more hands-on? What subjects at school do they enjoy or have a real flair for? What are their hobbies and interests, and are there ways that these might translate into work? (For an excellent exercise on how interests can become careers, see this post from careers professional Lis McGuire). Have they already expressed an interest in a career? How real is that curiosity? Was it a fleeting idea, or genuine, informed interest?

Having this awareness will enable you to open sensible discussions with your child, providing opportunities for you to encourage them to explore their interests and strengths, to question their own ideas and thinking, and (over time) to come to their own conclusions about their future. The key part of that last sentence is “over time”. As Lucy Sattler, CEO and Founder of Study Work Grow, talks about in The Power of ‘Unusual’ Career Conversations for Kids and Teens, your children won’t, and indeed can’t, make big career decisions on the spot. There is simply too much at stake; the pressure is too great.

It’s far more valuable to embrace the short, unscheduled and sometimes messy career conversations, when you get the chance to have them naturally, in an unforced way. They may not lead to a conclusion, or a commitment to action on the part of your child, and this may frustrate you, but be assured that every conversation matters, even fleeting and non-serious ones.

A second way you can help them is with choosing subjects at GCSE and at A-level/BTEC/IB (or equivalent). Remember that these choices won’t positively define their career path, but some decisions (particularly with A-levels or BTECs) can result in ruling out options. Make sure that you find out as much as you can about these choices. An excellent starting point is Informed Choices, a super-useful website produced by the Russell Group of universities. Other ways for you to keep yourself informed could include reading league tables and university guides. But make sure you take a critical view about how to use them, and don’t accept everything you read at face value.

Be aware also that your children will discover different information to you, and they’ll use it very differently. This is a good thing; together you might just find the right balance of trustworthy authoritative guidance and real authentic student experience.

Thirdly, I’d encourage all parents to get to know the reality of student finance. According to the Student Money Survey 2023, 64% of students wish they’d had better financial education. So get yourself up to speed, so you can help them. For parents from England, head over to Martin Lewis’s Money Saving Expert for the best possible explanation of how it all works. For everyone else, you might like to start with my own guide to Student Finance: Fees, Loans and Grants.

I’d also encourage every parent to give that straightforward practical support that simply lets your child know that you’ve got their back. Be prepared to be a taxi driver to take them to open days, interviews and offer-holder events. Or go with them on the train, sorting out the tickets and the packed lunch. But be willing for your role just to be about the travel, and no more. The more your child takes responsibility for what they see and do at these events, the better. Give them time to explore on their own when they are there, and be there to listen after the event.

Finally, I’d encourage every parent to let go of the idea of a career path, and embrace this idea from Dominic Cadbury (he of chocolate fame!): “There is no such thing as a career path. It’s crazy paving, and you have to lay it yourself”. There won’t be a single, definitive decision that your child takes at any point in their lives that will determine their whole future. Their life's success certainly won’t depend on deciding what to study at university several years in advance.

So when you get the chance to have a conversation about careers and universities, be content to explore the weird and the wonderful ideas they may have. We all need to allow ideas to come in and percolate in our mind, and we don’t make the best decisions under pressure. Be informed and be of practical help. Encourage them to explore, and be there to listen as they reflect on what they find. Most importantly, allow them the space and the time to make the big decisions at their own pace, however frustrating that may be for you.

Are you a Tooled Up member?

To hear more from Jonathan, and sign up to his newsletter, visit his website, Better Uni Choices. If you’d like to explore some of the ways that your children can embrace their interests, find challenges they’d be interested in solving and learn how to recognise their own strengths and unique traits, check out: Is “find your passion” really a good way to choose your course? And if you’d like a super-practical timeline of what happens during the build-up to university applications, have a look at: Your university application timeline, with key dates for 2025.

Parents and educators in Tooled Up schools might like to listen to our recent interview with former Researcher of the Month, Dr Julie Moote. Dr Moote chats about the benefits of careers education and the best ways to embed good practice in school settings, and provides some fantastic tips for parents to use at home when talking about careers with children.

The Tooled Up platform also contains expert advice on applying to university in the US, degree apprenticeships and the UCAS process, including considerations around accommodation and finance. We also have specific guidance for autistic young people during the transition to higher education. Teens might like to tune in to some inspiring interviews with Ella Podmore, senior materials engineer at McLaren Automotive, and medical students, Shiam Ardeshna and Henry Ball.

Finally, why not take Jonathan's advice and start building children's financial literacy early? Check out our Tooled Up resources here, including quizzes, tips and interviews.