4 reasons why the government’s current thinking around career role models represents redundant thinking

Source: Flickr, @loomingy1

Source: Flickr, @loomingy1


Let’s start with a quote. In an excellent piece Johnny Rich of Push writing a guest post on the Outstanding Careers blog writes

“Gove believes careers advice is like a fairy tale: the moment the gaze of a pupil and an inspiring employer meet across a room, they will find each other. Love and fate will conspire to bring them together. Or maybe not love and fate. Perhaps he thinks that being inspired will be sufficient to drive the pupil to understand what they need to do and to achieve at the right level and in the right areas.” 

Johnny Rich rightly points out that while a year or so ago all we could hear was independence with little specificity of what that means now we hear some concoction based on the inspiring business role-model. This idea of role-models seems particularly in vogue with the Tories at the moment, George Osborne has been at it this week talking about female role models for STEM subjects. Now in my view this way of thinking is straight up bad news.

Just to get some qualifications in I’m not against education-business partnership, I’m not against pupils and students learning from professionals, I’m not against real world learning and I’m not against mentoring and one-to-one support. But I am very much against putting inspiring business role models front and center in the governments careers education strategy. I’ve written about this before but I want to come round and have another pass about what is growing in prevalence as an idea. In terms of its underpinning principles I feel the current over emphasis is redundant thinking for 5 principal reasons:

1) Focuses on employers/ teacher’s supply not student exploration

The current represents a focus on the expert. The teacher who invites the business expert and the expert who volunteers determine what the content of career education, the student does not. The student just gets given a range of inspirational individuals to choose between. This makes the student in to a cinema going, deciding which of 12 films to view. They do no have a voice about what should be delivered until answer the date, the expert decides that. The student voice is crushed. Trying to get more inspirational STEM role models is a classic example of this, is this what students want or what governments want?

2) Focuses on inspiration over critical decision-making

Have we spent enough time asking why we want to inspire people? My guess is that inspiration in this manner is mainly delivered to motivate, motivate to create success, succeed to acclimatize a young person in to the work place. This model leads little room for true critical thinking, they just get swept along by their “inspiration”. Things would look very different if we were after pupils who thought critically about their futures rather than just were inspired. This will create young people who think deeply about what the purpose of work is, how their work might affect the world around them and what would be meaningful for them and society. But this isn’t what we want is it? Pupils? Thinking?

3) Focuses on information not learning to learn

Linked to the lack of critical thinking comes a similar assumption about learning. The inspirational role models model leads with a philosophy of “let me tell you what you need to know…” rather than “let me help and support you in knowing how to know and learning how to learn.” This sort of deep thinking around career is again removed from the careers education curriculum. Knowledge is seen as static and possessed by the elite few not fluid, personal and dispersed across a network. This sort of simplicity universally fails to rise to the challenge we face in the new information age and a chronic lowering of standards in education, where’s your rigor Mr. Gove?

4) Focuses on straight routes, not preparing for uncertainty

Finally let’s ask if you put someone on a pedestal as being successful and a role model and then stick them in front of a load of young people what will be the last thing they are going to say? How about “I was lucky, it was a series of chance events that got me here and I never really wanted to be here at all.” They will tell young people that they had one plan, worked hard towards it, followed the “secret wisdom of… and so were successful. This is at stark odds with the growing focus on chance and chaotic events in careers development. Uncertainty is one of the key realities young people will need to be equipped to deal. I doubt if the context that is being created in careers education is going to respond to it. Again this scheme is about making reality simpler not complex and needing a variety of high level skills to deal with.


In summary this model of career development touted in this “inspirational role models scheme” represents backward, uncritical thinking and a lowering of standards. Career development is being dumbed down.

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