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Improve Your Leaving Cert Student’s Chances of Making Good Course & Career Decisions

Updated: Apr 4

What Outdated Beliefs Are We Imposing On Our Teens? Are Our 20th Century Values Doing a Disservice to The Next Generation?

When it was clear that my youngest had no interest in going to college, I fretted about silly things that I thought he would miss out on, such as making new friends and having a safety net to fall back on. Even knowing that school was never his thing and that he had a strong sense of purpose, I still had that niggling concern. I had fallen for the misconception that going to college was somehow related to having a happy, successful future. Luckily, training and studying as a coach helped me realise that these were my issues - my beliefs and my values - not his.


Working in teen career development, I’ve had the pleasure of chatting with many parents of Leaving Cert students. Often, they feel a huge burden of responsibility when it comes to supporting their teenager through what is their first big independent decision – what to do after finishing school. With no formal training for this new role, parents do what they can to gather information from friends and colleagues who have already travelled this road. They also draw on their own personal experiences. But times change. What was valid even a decade ago may not be valid now.


Imposing our beliefs and values on our young is our default position. So, what are beliefs and values? A belief is something we believe to be true without proof, for example ‘if you put your head down and study hard you will be set up for life'. Is this true? Where is the proof? While there can be some element of truth in this for some teenagers, others can feel very let down and disappointed when their efforts don’t pay off.


Values are things that we deem to be important, such as formal education or job security. So, while I value formal education, as a parent, I’ve had to re-evaluate the importance I place on it.


In this article, I identify some of the commonly held beliefs that parents (and oftentimes teens) hold about courses and colleges - beliefs that influence the course and career decisions that Leaving Cert students make. It is particularly relevant for parents as primary influencers of their children’s career development and career decision making. Beliefs include:

  • Parents and teachers know what’s best for the teen

  • College provides young people with the best start in life

  • Course choices should be based on CAO points, what the teen is good at and/or work opportunities

  • Traditional University degrees are better than degrees from Institutes of Technology

  • Further Education is only considered when all direct routes into Higher education fail, and

  • Apprenticeships have a lesser status than attending college full-time.

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Belief: Parents & teachers know best

I’ve been collecting stories from 20 something-year-olds for a long time and am struck by the number of people who report that their parents steered them away from the career path that they felt naturally drawn to. In all cases, it seemed to me that the parents were drawing on their own beliefs and values. It never ended well. Either the young person made a stand at some point and tried to persuade their parents to respect their decision, or they tried, unsuccessfully, to satisfy their parent's wishes.


There is no doubt, that parents want what’s best for their children – to have happy, successful lives. More than anyone, they are heavily invested in their children's future. But wanting the best and knowing what’s best are not the same. Many people believe that academic achievement leads to a happy, successful life. Leslie Riopel, Professor of Psychology at Northwood University, and author of the Psychology of Mindfulness helps shed some light on this issue.


From her research, she believes that while happiness and success are intrinsically linked, it is not necessarily in the way that we would have been led to believe.


Ms Riopel describes happiness as an emotional state, characterised by feelings of joy, satisfaction, contentment, and fulfilment. Success, she says, is more difficult to define as it means different things to different people. For example, success could be about power or wealth or loving what you do or living in accordance with your values. Essentially, Ms Riopel believes that happiness is not at all related to setting goals and achieving them, but in finding a sense of joy within ourselves and in our daily lives. This dispels the idea that we can know what’s best for another person - what will bring them happiness and success in their lives.


Belief: College provides young people with the best start in life

But does it? What about the 1 in 6 first-year students who drop out of college each year, the 1 in 4 who drop out over the duration of their course, or the 2 in 3 students who admit to having chosen the wrong course?


Dropping out of college can shatter young people’s dreams. Staying in college and disliking their course can be soul-destroying. Maybe they will get a second chance. How are they going to make better course choices next time? Who will pay for it?


The transition from secondary school into higher education is challenging for very many students. Consider the contrast between life in the highly structured secondary school environment with that of the less structured environment in higher education. Dependence on the teachers in terms of what to study and when to study is replaced by a requirement that the student morphs into an independent, self-directed learner with time management skills, overnight.


Belief: Choose courses based on CAO points

One of the most widely held beliefs that I have come across is that high point courses are better than lower point courses. CAO points are based on supply and demand. As a rule, a limited number of places in a college that is situated within a heavily populated urban area will have higher points than a course with more places and in a less populated rural area.


There may be more demand for a well-established course than for a relatively new course. One of the consequences of this belief is choosing courses, including professional programmes such as medicine or dentistry, just because they require high points.


Belief: Choose courses that you are good at, rather than what might interest you

There is a belief that it is best to choose a course that you are good at, rather than one that merely interests you. Leaving Cert students get caught out on this one regularly. Teachers may encourage students who are particularly good at a subject to pursue it in college. But is this subject suitable for the student? What career path does it lead to? Will this area interest and excite them enough to get out of bed on a cold winter morning to attend class? Will it interest them enough to burn the midnight oil to put the finishing touches to an assignment?


Interest is what counts. It’s what motivates us.


Consider a student who is torn between physiotherapy and accountancy. All the advice is to study accountancy as she is good with figures and breezes through the subject in school. But while the subject comes easy to her, she can’t see herself confined to an office and working on a computer all day. She feels that she needs to be up and moving around and is drawn to working in a hospital or healthcare setting. She also wants to help people directly.


How easy it is to take the wrong career path.


Belief: Choosing courses based on work opportunities

There is a strong tendency to direct Leaving Cert students towards traditional ‘safe’ careers such as teaching. This is understandable in such uncertain times. However, the world of work has changed so dramatically over the past decade that it is predicted that very many of the jobs of the future have not yet been imagined. Large scale studies have shown that today’s school-leavers are choosing the same limited number of careers as those 20 + years ago.

Many of our beliefs about job opportunities are outdated. The creative field for example, for years assigned the label ‘you’ll never be able to support yourself, has mushroomed in recent years. Creatives are in demand in a wide range of industries such as business and education and are very well paid. The following is just a small sample of current ‘in demand‘ jobs.

  • Animator

  • App developer

  • Games developer

  • Computer systems analyst

  • Web designer

  • Data analyst

  • Data scientist

  • Environmental health officer

  • Health and safety officer

  • Project manager

  • Quality control

Belief: Traditional University degrees are better than degrees from Institutes of Technology

There is a belief that university degrees are of a higher calibre than those of Institutes of Technology, now Technological Universities. This isn’t true. A Level 8 honours degree in both institutions meet set criteria under the National Framework of Qualifications. It is true to say that they have a different ethos.


Universities tend to suit students who thrive in academia – students who like studying, researching, and taking exams. Institutes of Technology suit students who learn best in smaller classes and have a more hands-on approach. Courses tend to be more applied to the area of study and provide valuable work experience. It is fair to say that some people place value on the prestige factor associated with attending a particular University. What’s important is that parents become aware that this is a value and a choice, not a universal truth.


Belief: Further Education is only considered when direct entry into Higher Education fails

There is a belief that Further Education is for teenagers who aren’t bright enough to go to university. Not so. Colleges of Further Education or Post Leaving Cert Courses are a wonderful resource. They not only provide one and two-year programmes, leading to levels 5 and 6 on the National Framework of Qualifications, but they act as a bridge between secondary school and higher education.


Further Education is ideal for students who:

  • might feel that they are not ready for higher education

  • are not yet sure about what area of study they wish to pursue, or

  • would like to try out an area of study before committing to three or four years in higher education

The reality is that many students are not ready for the challenges that students face when transitioning from secondary school into higher education. The wise ones recognise this.


Belief: Apprenticeship has a lesser status than attending college full-time

Unlike many European countries, Ireland has a long history of promoting and celebrating academic learning over practical learning. The concept of ‘smart’ is often thought to be applied to those who are good at subjects such as languages and math. What about those who excel in more practical subjects? Are they less smart? Unfortunately, these students and their parents have been led to believe that they possess a lesser form of intelligence, which of course is not true. Many people are gifted at applying their learning to practical situations. They thrive in areas where they combine work with learning.


There is a new generation of apprenticeships where the apprentice combines work with college and gets paid. It’s often referred to as ‘earn while you learn’. To date, there are 62 courses across all levels of Further and Higher Education, and the number is growing. Areas include

  • Finance

  • Insurance

  • ICT

  • Biopharma

  • Engineering

  • Property services

  • Recruitment

  • Sales

  • Hospitality

  • Construction

  • Healthcare

While open to school-leavers, places are limited, and the selection process is competitive. Instead of applying through the CAO, applicants must first secure employment with an employer who is registered to provide the on-the-job training in partnership with the college.


Conclusion

Our children inhabit a world that is very different to the one we inhabit. The stable, secure employment of the 20th century, on which one could plan and build a life, is no longer a given. While full-time employment and long-term careers still exist, part-time, temporary employment is increasingly commonplace. One’s career is no longer a lifetime commitment to one employer but as selling one’s services and skills to an employer who needs a project completed. In this new world of work, individuals must manage their own careers.


Consequently, one of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to help them get off to a good start in their career journey, and not fall victim to old beliefs and values that no longer serve individuals or society.


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