Pupil Career Choices and Pressures on Curriculum

Posted in : Cassidy's Comments on 13 November 2017
Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL
Issues covered:

In a recently published guidance document called ‘How to help your Child with their Future Career Plans’ The Department of The Economy Careers Service sets out the challenge of planning for our young people’s futures in a changing labour market.

“It is very difficult to accurately forecast the job requirements of the future; in which sector these will be based, and what qualifications will be required. However, it is accepted that the essential skills needed for the workplace are a good standard of literacy, numeracy, basic computer skills and effective communication skills. Young people need to look for ways to develop these skills through their studies and school-based activities, sport, voluntary work and work experience.”

Business Services, in particular Information and Communication Technology; Financial Services; Food and Drink Processing; Advanced Manufacturing and Advanced Engineering; Life and Health Sciences; Creative Industries and Retail, Hotels and Catering (in support of Tourism) are all sectors that have been identified in the guide as key to future economic success and they are expected to offer increasing opportunities for high-quality employment. Schools have long been aware that these jobs require people with STEM subject qualifications in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.


That is why there was such concern among school leaders when former Education Minister John O’Dowd proposed that Northern Ireland pupils should not have access to the new range of 1 – 9 graded GCSE examinations being introduced in England and in particular new enhanced Mathematics qualifications. The prospect of our pupils being denied the ability to compete on equal terms in the wider qualifications market was alarming indeed. The decision was reversed by incoming Minister Peter Weir ensuring an open marketplace for qualifications and it is reassuring that CCEA GCSE grades will be harmonised with those in England. Employers and universities in the future will be looking for these new benchmarked grades with a grade 5 as a pass mark – equating to a low B rather than a C in the existing GCSE grading system. From summer 2019 therefore, CCEA grades will include a C* grade equating to a 5 in the 1 -9 scale and an A* grade will be anchored to a grade 9.

It is a significant challenge for schools to continually amend and adapt curriculum offerings, given that teaching staff are traditionally employed on the basis of specialist subject qualification and expertise. Additionally, success in teaching GCSE and A Level courses has always hinged on teachers gaining years of experience. It is hard for schools to remain responsive to these market demands given that the lead-in time for new examination courses can take several years. Schools are trying to broaden their curricular offering but a recent letter from DE to schools signals clearly that Entitlement Curriculum funding will be reduced in 2017 -18 The warning comes in a letter from the Finance Director at the Department of Education (DE), Gary Fair:

"Some other funding streams that also directly impact on schools, such as the Extended Schools and Entitlement Framework funding will, unfortunately, be affected."


Former Education Minister, Peter Weir has recognised the tension that currently exists in schools in delivering these new subjects while coping with reduced budgets and timetable flexibility in a statement announcing changes to the Entitlement Curriculum targets.


“One of the consistent messages I have heard from school principals is the challenges they face in implementing the Entitlement Framework.  I have listened to their concerns and in these challenging times I want to ensure that schools have clarity in the future delivery of the Entitlement Framework. 

It is important that we ensure all pupils can access an appropriate range of relevant and engaging courses.  I also wanted to provide schools with a degree of flexibility, in line with my objective of increasing autonomy. Reducing the specified number should provide both this flexibility and enable schools to manage their resources better in these challenging times.”


The struggle to deliver on a wider range of subjects to satisfy these career targets is clear across the range of schools here. Smaller schools, in particular, need the support of the Entitlement Framework and reductions will be a problem for them. UTU General Secretary Avril Hall Callaghan said,

“As not all schools individually were able to offer this range, it meant the development of learning networks in some areas so all children could benefit from the best teaching and facilities regardless of which school they attended.”

Ms Hall Callaghan added that the planned Strule campus in Omagh would ultimately bring together schools from various sectors on a unified site.

However, as not all towns can provide this, the Entitlement Framework offering children a larger range of subjects ensured that schools maximised their potential by sharing resources and expertise.

“It would be a retrograde step if this element of the framework was lost or undermined at this stage when so much has already been achieved."


Parents too need to adapt to the changing landscape of the world of work. Virginia Isaac - CEO of the ‘The Inspiring Futures Foundation’ which provides impartial, expert careers guidance suggested in an article for ‘The Guardian’ that it's a fine line between helping your child make career choices and doing it for them. Most parents, while well-intentioned in supporting their children at key stages in their academic journey, are not always able to do so successfully. The world is a very different place today to the one they faced when making career-related decisions. New roles are being created all the time, and it seems many jobs open to young people today didn't even exist 10 years ago. She warned parents to be careful not to unintentionally pressure a child to realise their own unfulfilled ambitions or familiar academic path. Today new options are open to pupils, like learning on an apprenticeship, which might not only be better suited to a child but will allow them to avoid the daunting student debts that so many young people experience.


There is certainly work to do to try and accommodate our young people’s career needs in the light of these financial pressures on the curriculum. Perhaps the apprenticeship option may offer a possible alternative, more affordable way forward?


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This article is correct at 13/11/2017

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Frank Cassidy
Former Principal & Regional Officer of ASCL

The main content of this article was provided by Frank Cassidy. Email frankcassidy63@outlook.com

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