At this time of year, the country’s 15-17 year olds are facing the fear of making ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ choices that will open or close doors for the rest of their lives. Or so they are led to believe.
Right now, 60,000+ Junior Certificate students, as well as this year’s Transition Year students, are anxiously picking their Leaving Certificate subjects. A further 50,000 Leaving Certificate students are selecting college courses based on those very choices they made 2-3 years ago. As many as one in six will over time drop out of their chosen third level course, mostly because they picked the wrong course or did not understand what the course entailed (2015 briefing ‘Reaching Out: Student Drop-Out Project’ from the National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning).
The pressure can begin on the first day of secondary school when fresh-faced and anxious 12-year-olds are immediately told in the school hall about the importance of the Leaving Certificate to their whole future. This pressure intensifies throughout their school career with constant reminders of how their lives will be limited by the choices they are making – even though they are hardly in a position to make informed choices as they have had little opportunity to experiment and develop their subject interests. They are warned that if they don’t pick the ‘right’ subject for the Junior, they can’t take it for the Leaving, it won’t be available to them at college, and then they won’t be able to get their ‘dream’ job. So – should our 12-year olds have to pick their ‘dream’ job before they leave national school?
Schools commonly suggest subjects that students ‘should’ do, e.g. Business. This can limit the student’s ability to create an individual educational experience that stimulates and provides the best foundation for their future. Moreover, direction of choices by the school is often defined by accessibility (or otherwise) of other subject options, as schools have to make scheduling decisions based on subject demand and availability of qualified teachers. Ironically, ‘suggested’ subjects are sometimes available at third level without prior experience, or as an add-on to another degree.
If we add into this mix teachers who may be over-stretched or unqualified, the students’ confidence in making the ‘right’ choices is, unsurprisingly, low. Given that lack of confidence, what these students need is really good information and advice. And what they need in today’s world is to be prepared to be able to take advantage of opportunities and to deal with the uncertainties that will lie ahead. In this context, the public or civil servant model of work will not serve the majority of young people well because they will never have that kind of ‘job for life’.
Parents are probably best placed to know the potential of their young adults. They can encourage their student to leave their options open; to consider working rather than going to college until they have a clear idea of what degree subject they may want to study; to understand that they will have a long working life – maybe into their 70s – and that the choices they are making are relevant to their first career. They may have several careers, with overlapping and intermittent periods of employment and self-employment, and will certainly need to keep learning and acquiring new skills. Some of their future occupations do not yet exist, some will use technology that hasn’t yet been invented, and some will solve problems that haven’t even been identified, according to the popular YouTube videos ‘Shift Happens’. Some occupations will disappear.
Deciding what they want to do is the most important step for the school student, but 15-17 year olds shouldn’t necessarily expect to get this decision ‘right’. As the Cheshire Cat said to Alice in Wonderland, if it doesn’t really matter where you want to get to, then it doesn’t really matter which way you go. Students should take time, research with an open mind, and talk and listen to as many people in the workforce as possible.
A well-organised Transition Year gives students a superficial sample of different subjects and some work experience, though selected from what is readily available rather than opportunities that might broaden horizons and heighten aspirations. A more imaginative, stretching and informed Transition Year programme for all young adults could provide better information. A version of ‘bring your parent to school’, targeting as many different occupational options as possible, as an integral part of each school year, might help develop aspirations that students would not otherwise conceive of.
Once young adults have selected what sort of career options they might initially like to pursue, they should understand that there are 101 routes to their chosen destination, and a ‘wrong’ Leaving Certificate subject choice may only reduce that to 99. If they can’t decide, they should do subjects they enjoy, and see where that leads them.