Today's children decide their school and career path early

Sunday 15 November 2009

Children as young as 12 have a strong sense of their personal futures and can reflect thoughtfully on what life might hold for them, according to new research funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and led by Professor Paul Croll of Reading University and Professor Gaynor Attwood of the University of the West of England.

'What is very striking,' says Professor Croll, 'is that for this generation there is absolutely no gender stereotyping in hopes for the future. Furthermore, what children say at the age of 11 about school participation after the age of 16 is highly predictive of their actual behaviour.'

The research concludes that to increase participation in schooling post-16, schools need to focus on giving advice and information to children as soon as they enter secondary education. Greater attention also needs to be paid to social relationships, in order to make school a more enjoyable experience for some children. But the study acknowledges that schools face a difficult balance between encouraging high expectations and providing realistic opportunities and goals.

Girls are as likely as boys to see themselves as supporting families and boys are as likely as girls to see marriage and children as a significant part of their lives. However, by far the most important, for both boys and girls, is getting a good job. School is seen as instrumental in achieving this.

'A major background of the research is concern for relatively low levels of participation in education post-16,' says Professor Croll, 'as well as the under-representation of children from disadvantaged backgrounds at university.'

However, the study found no support for the view that children from disadvantaged backgrounds have attitudes to education or value systems that are incompatible with those of school. Indeed, virtually all children think school is important.

Furthermore, although intentions for post-16 participation are lower than might be hoped, only a small proportion of the children said that they definitely would not go to university. This suggests that the possibility of higher education is becoming a norm for this generation of young people.

The study found that a significant number of children were confused about the educational routes available to them and did not understand the link between specific educational and employment opportunities. For example some planned to go to university but also said they intended to leave school at 16.

More significantly, the children in the study were occupationally ambitious with 70 percent choosing professional and managerial occupations. Children whose own parents were in such occupations were more likely to be ambitious but two-thirds of children whose parents were in manual occupations wanted professional and managerial jobs for themselves.

'Many more children wanted these kinds of jobs regardless if these jobs will be available in the future,' says Professor Croll, 'and the question arises of not just who wants them but also who will get them.'     

Professors Croll and Attwood have fed their findings into the Government initiative on raising the participation age (RPA) and have briefed MPs on their work.

The study, which is designed to advance our understanding of how young children see the educational and occupational possibilities available to them and how they begin to make choices, shows that boys and girls from all backgrounds see education as important for the future.

The ESRC will return to this issue of young people's aspirations as a part of the longitudinal study, Understanding Society. For the first time thousands of young people will be surveyed about their attitudes offering a new insight into this group.

For further information contact

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Notes for editors

  1. This release is based on the findings from 'Children's perception of the value of education', funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and carried out by Professor Paul Croll from the Institute of Education at the University of Reading and Gaynor Attwood of the University of the West of England.
  2. Methodology: The research involved two principal methods of data collection, a large scale representative survey and detailed personal interviews with a sub-sample of the children in the survey. The children were in their third term of year 7, aged 11 or 12, when they completed the questionnaire and in their first term of year 8, aged 12 or, in a few cases 13, when they were interviewed. A stratified multi-stage sample was taken involving local authorities, schools within LAs and tutor groups within schools. Six local authorities were sampled in three areas of the country, the South East, the South West and South Yorkshire/North Midlands.
  3. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research, which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million.  At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.
  4. A book based on the study is being published by Continuum in December 2009; Croll, P., Attwood, G. and Fuller, C. (2009) Children's Lives, Children's Futures. London: Continuum.
  5. The ESRC confirms the quality of its funded research by evaluating research projects through a process of peers review. This research has been graded as 'outstanding'.