Where to after school?

At this time of year parents of children in their last year of secondary school begin to think about what happens when school is over: work, further study at TAFE or university, a trade or cadetship? It is always challenging to face the future prospects of our children, but this particular transition also coincides with formal adulthood.

As parents, the foundation of your guidance needs to be a deep and realistic understanding of the interests, skills and ambitions of each of your children. A second element is recognising that almost all people leaving school now will have several, quite different careers across their working lives. Thirdly, there is the matter of timing – not everyone is ready at 17 or 18 to be making long-term employment plans.

To know what is best for your children in terms of post-school study, there needs to be an honest assessment of the child’s various skills, talents and interests and how these could be translated into study and employment options. Some are brilliant at sport or physical activities, others have a facility for language and literature. Some are great at mathematics, and others can stand in public and speak without nerves.

Each of my own children has attended university – which is not altogether surprising for the children of two university graduates in a household dominated by books. However, each has chosen quite different paths – some have studied with the intent of that course leading to direct employment; while others have seen the course as a means to quite a different end, where further study and experience will be necessary before establishing a career. Those who have little interest in university study should not feel forced into it. Similarly, those with great aptitude for a trade should pursue their dreams and not be limited by the social goals of peers.

There is an oft-quoted line that says the average person will now have five different careers – and there is some evidence to support this, though it is not conclusive. Do we mean different phases of careers or really very different careers? Regardless, two things are evident just from reading job ads: employers want people with high skill levels and flexibility; they want people who can do the job and show leadership potential.

In choosing a pathway for study and career, I have advised my own children to choose something that will interest them now, and that they can adapt to changing circumstances or careers in the future.

Another crucial element is timing. Not everyone finishing school in 2014 is ready for further study or ‘permanent’ employment right away. Of those who do go straight onto study or employment preparation a high proportion – in some instances more than 20 per cent, rapidly change their minds. A ‘gap year’ could be a good idea. Universities have observed that those students who defer study for a year or two often progress more successfully through their course; however, a high proportion of those who do defer also never return to take up that study.

Young people need to not stress about getting everything in place by the time they are 20 or even 25. There is no one size fits all approach. ‘Where to after school?’ is a perplexing question but one where all the skills of parenting come to the fore: support and encourage; be a critical friend and promote resilience, and ensure that responsibility is accepted and mistakes are forgiven.

Food for thought:

  1. What are my child’s hopes and ambitions for their future?
  2. How can I best support them in the pursuit of these goals?
  3. Do I make sure that my guidance respects the individuality of each of my children?
  4. What is realistic for our family and this particular person in terms of support (emotional, financial, intellectual)?
  5. When I discuss these matters with my children is it their goals or my own that are paramount?