Tuesday, 13 September 2011
Tinker, tailor, soldier..nurse? by Keren David
My daughter’s school, for example, used to have a careers adviser based in the library. Her office is now empty. It’s far from clear where pupils will go in order to get guidance on qualifications, courses, apprenticeships and jobs.
I did a school visit last year to a school in Manchester. Housed in a brand new award-winning building, the school Learning Resource Centre has banks of computers - and that’s all. Four shelves of books in a classroom could be borrowed, the school’s leaders clearly thought that its pupils didn’t have much need of them.
Quite often on school visits pupils wait until after my talk to ask for advice about becoming a writer. This school was no exception. But after I’d given some writing tips, one girl still lingered. ‘Please Miss,’ she said. ‘I want to be a nurse or a midwife. Can you tell me what I need to do?’
I’ve thought about her since, and wondered if I was able to help her at all, with my garbled advice about biology GCSE and googling the Royal College of Nursing. It seemed almost old-fashioned to meet a girl who wanted to be a nurse, not a celebrity.
I remembered some books that I loved when I was growing up. The Sue Barton series, written by Helen Dore Boyleston between 1936 and 1952 follows Sue through her career as a nurse - from student, in hospitals, urban New York, rural New Hampshire. She grows up through the course of the book, marries (naturally) a doctor, has children. But the focus of the books is always her professional life (ignore that drippy cover, Sue was much more likely to be sewing up a nasty wound or splinting a broken leg than canoodling in a corridor). Even though I was the most squeamish girl ever – I loved them.
(My sister, just as squeamish, loved them even more than I did. I do not feel it is entirely coincidental that she married a doctor)
I can’t imagine a series like Sue Barton being published nowadays. You can find out about careers in entertainment or fashion, sport and drama in today’s fiction. But how about nursing, journalism, science or the army? Where’s the fiction which talks about what it’s like going to university – and whether it’s worth it? You can watch Casualty, of course, but that's different from stories which concentrate on career development.
I was talking to a girl the other day who was a school drop out. Her dyslexia was undiagnosed, she could hardly read, she fell in with a bad crowd and spent her time truanting and drinking. Hair-dressing saved her, she told me (she was doing my highlights at the time). Her aunt got her a part-time job at Toni and Guy, she liked earning money, she broke with the waster friends. The part-time job led to an apprenticeship and now she's got a good job that she enjoys.
But then she read a book - 'One of those misery lit books.'' For the first time in her life she felt a real connection with what she was reading. She's gone back to evening classes, is taking GCSEs She has a new ambition, to be a social worker. She inspired by the stories she's been reading to try and make a real difference to abused children
Young people have taken a disproportionate hit in our new age of austerity. Many don't seem to feel they have a satisfying future to look forward to. Nothing can take the place of a personal, informed careers service, but is there anything children's authors can do to inform and inspire? Can we help young people see that they don't need to win X Factor to be a success? Where’s the Sue Barton of today?