You can be whatever you want to be? Cobblers!


‘You can be whatever you want to be’ is balderdash. It’s not aspiration that some students lack, but careers knowledge and understanding, says Gerald Haigh.

In my steam-driven youth, it was assumed that all boys wanted to be engine drivers. I couldn’t see it myself. I’d looked into it and knew what it was like. You wore blue overalls and an old black cap, and you stood in an open-sided cab in the middle of the night, with your head outside, eyes screwed up against the driving snow at 60 miles an hour hoping not to miss any of those semaphore-arm signals that came and went in a flash (“Whoa! Jack, did you get that one?”).

No, that wasn’t for me. I was going to be a fighter pilot. I would wear wings on my chest and zoom around in one of the new jets.

Except that I wasn’t. It was pointed out to me that severe short-sightedness and poor colour vision would not work to my advantage at the recruiting office (the colour vision thing would have kept me off the railway, too, as it had my grandfather, because it’s genetic. He had to go down the pit instead).

As a result, I learned very early that aspirational gee-up talk along the lines of “you can be whatever you want to be”, is largely cobblers.

You still hear it, though, declaimed by adults to growing children, in school and beyond, partly because there’s a belief that children, especially from disadvantaged backgrounds, are short on aspiration.

Well, there’s plenty of evidence that it is not aspiration that young people lack so much as knowledge, understanding and advice on what they need to do to get from here to there, and what are the alternatives (which always exist) if the first choice is simply out of the question.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) paper The Role of Aspirations, Attitudes and Behaviour in Closing the Educational Attainment Gap speaks of “questionable assumptions about low aspirations among poorer children and parents”, which lead to “a proliferation of ‘hopeful’ interventions with unknown effectiveness”.

And the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) concludes, on the Aspiration Interventions section of its Teaching and Learning Toolkit website, that “...much underachievement results not from low aspiration itself but from a gap between the aspirations that do exist and the knowledge and skills which are required to achieve them”. So, perhaps unsurprisingly, “as a result it may be more helpful to focus on raising attainment more directly in the first instance”.

This was put clearly to me by two jovial chaps who came to fix my roof on a freezing cold and wet day. 

“Not a good day for this kind of work,” I said to one. “No, mate,” he grinned, “we should have listened at school.”

But, of course, it is not just “listening at school”, and collecting the right qualifications. There’s the broader, crucial issue of employability to be addressed. This must go further than basic careers advice, crammed into the workload of an already busy teacher. 

Work I did for the Education and Employers Taskforce in its early days convinced me that what’s needed – clearly demonstrated in some of the schools I visited – is a professional full-time person, not necessarily a teacher, with senior level clout, who has the experience, time, skills and support staff to build a considerable network of relationships with local businesses, public services, and employer organisations. 

Get this right, establish a two-way flow – people into school, students out to the workplace – and the results can be remarkable. Students begin to understand what’s possible, acquiring knowledge that empowers their decision-making – realising, for example, that if they aspire to help sick or injured people, there are more than 350 different careers within the NHS alone. 

They’re also able to see in action those elusive “soft skills”, that we worry about so much, in real workshops, offices, stores, hotels, consulting rooms. Above all, young people who live in deprived surroundings can find themselves being taken seriously and listened to, often for the first time in their lives, by confident and high-achieving adults who are not teachers. 

I saw all that in some remarkable schools and have wondered ever since why even a fraction of the noise and fuss that government makes about targets and results is not directed to recognising and supporting schools that are working their collective socks off helping their young people to understand and take a grip of what lies ahead. 

There are no miracles, of course. “You can be whatever you want to be,” is still balderdash because no amount of advice and knowledge would have cured my eyesight and sent me off to Cranwell. But had I been helped, I might have found one of the dozens of other careers in and around aviation, and, who knows, I might now be writing this, from the opposite perspective, in Flight International magazine. But that’s a flight of fancy too far I guess.

  • Gerald Haigh was a teacher in primary, secondary and special schools for 30 years, 11 of them in headship. You can find him on Twitter @geraldhaigh1 

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