The UK is at risk of wasting talent if young children start ruling out career options based on their gender, ethnicity or class, an international education expert has warned.
Youngsters need “light bulb moments” early in their school careers to help them “think big” about their potential and their goals, according to Andreas Schleicher, the director of education and skills at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
All pupils need access to role models that can help them understand the world beyond the classroom and open their eyes to what they could do in the future, he said.
Mr Schleicher’s comments come as a new campaign is launched by the Education & Employers charity to build up a UK national network of 100,000 volunteers to give children an insight into the world of work.
He said: “You can’t be, what you can’t see. We’re not saying seven-year-olds have to choose their careers now – but we must fight to keep their horizons open.
“We cannot afford to waste talent from children as young as seven ruling out options if they are convinced their choices are limited by their gender, ethnicity or class.
“It’s a question of social justice and common sense to tackle ingrained assumptions as early as possible or they will be very tough to unpick later on.
“We need major employers, including government itself, to open up their workforces to primary schools.
“We can’t afford the mismatch between career aspirations and the reality of the job market so we need to be bolder in getting inspiring professionals into classrooms as early as possible.”
The I Am #InspiringTheFuture campaign is calling on business to support the effort, which aims to give millions of children the chance to meet people from different industries and professions.
The charity said the long-term goal is to create 10 million face-to-face meetings between pupils and volunteers.
Mr Schleicher said: “We all had light bulb moments at school when we’ve met someone who inspires us to think big about our potential, our future and our goals.
“We believe every single young person has an equal right to that same light bulb moment – wherever they live, whatever their parents do, and whatever school they go to.”
The campaign will help to “tackle the imbalance in accessing role models”, he argued.
“There is no silver bullet in boosting social mobility – but understanding the world beyond the classroom and home must be universal. It can’t be rationed to certain young people and not others.”
Mr Schleicher is leading the OECD’s major Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study, which evaluates education systems around the world by testing 15-year-olds from around the world every three years in reading, maths and science.
He was once described by former education secretary Michael Gove as “the most important man in education”.
An updated report published by the OECD and Education Employers says research shows children’s socio-economic background and their gender have an effect on their career aspirations.
“Gender stereotyping is particularly evident when it comes to science careers,” it says.
“Though both girls and boys may expect to work in a science-related career, they tend to see themselves in very different fields.”
It adds that the PISA study has found that while most 15-year-olds have an idea about the type of work they want to do, one in three students cites one of only 10 occupations.
Education & Employers connects teachers to volunteers who can be invited into schools to share their career stories.
The network currently has 55,000 volunteers, ranging from apprentices to chief executives and is linked up with 80% of secondary schools and 20% of primaries in England.
Chief executive Nick Chambers said: “Too often young people’s ambitions are narrowed by an innate sense of what people from their background should aspire to – and what’s out of reach.
“Inspiring the Future can’t end ingrained social, race or gender barriers but we can give schools the tools to start dismantling them. We must go the extra mile in helping teachers and parents show young people what’s possible.”
The campaign is particularly targeting primary schools, working with primary futures initiative, which helps teachers to provide careers education.
Paul Whiteman, general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers – one of the groups running primary futures – said: “The importance of exposure to the world of work at primary age cannot be overstated. The earlier children’s aspirations are raised and broadened, the better.”