Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Tinker, tailor, soldier..nurse? by Keren David

One of the many services for young people that has fallen victim to the government’s spending cuts is the careers service. Head teachers have warned that millions of pupils will lack proper advice, as the Connexions service has been axed, before a replacement put in its place.

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?


Penny Dolan said...

Powerful post, Keren. One olnly wonders who is doing the dumbing down.

Stroppy Author said...

You're so right about schools careers advice. My Small Bint did GCSEs this summer and the careers advice in her school was pitiful. When they were doing their sixth form applications, the teacher told them to think carefully about whether they could afford to go to university. As a consequence, several decided not to apply for sixth form - 'why do A levels if I can't afford university?' Quite apart from the fees issue, when did A levels become *only* a passport to university? This was really shutting off options without giving any careers advice at all, and it's pitiful.

Malaika said...

The only reason I went into higher education instead of becoming a shop assistant or shorthand-typist was because a Careers Adviser encouraged - and even bullied - me and literally stood over me while I filled in the forms. Sadly, I don't remember her name, but I've never forgotten what she did for me.

Sue Purkiss said...

What an interesting post, Keren. I'm trying to think back over 'career-led' fiction that I might have read... I didn't read Sue Barton, but I do remember an American series about a nurse called Cherry - Cherry Ames, maybe? Not sure. I really liked it, but I think it was the character that interested me, not so much her nursing. I do remember reading lots of books about ballet dancers, but that was never a serious option - too tall: oh, and never had a ballet lesson. I should certainly think TV series like ER might make you think about medicine.

There are some very good books in the Quick Reads series - non-fic: there was one by the Big Issue finder that might interest young people in the situation of your hairdresser. But how to get them into the right hands at the right time...

zornhau said...

@Stroppy Author - Teacher sounded as if they had an axe to grind! Apalled!

Is there any YA set in Universities or Colleges?

YA Career Sagas sound fun to write. Is the problem that nobody's writing them, or is it that nobody wants them.

Katherine Langrish said...

Very interesting post, Keren. Stroppy Author, that's a terrible story! Schools do need better and specialist careers advice: it's not something teachers are necessarily any good at (though some may be.) I'd like to think it was better now than when I was at school - they pooh-poohed my ambition to become a writer and suggested nursing, nursery nursing, or secretatial work. I would have been dreadful at all of them.

Much more recently my elder daughter, who knew she wanted to work in some aspect of theatre, told her sixth form choices teacher she wanted to do theatre studies and received the patronising sneer, 'Oh, you're my third little actress of the day!' She now works in a theatre marketing company on Shaftesbury Avenue, but it's a good thing she isn't easily deterred.

hilary said...

That was an interesting read, especially as I am about to pack my eldest off to university, and trying to hide how little faith I have in the project. No careers advice for him either, although he could do with it so much.

I think Sue Barton may be off with James Herriot somewhere. Replaced (should X Factor fail to come up to scratch) by the Top Gear team (Oh I'll be a very rich expensive car driver) Brian Cox (or an astrophysicist rock star) and Kate Humble (sheep).

I had an interesting conversation with a fourteen year old (not mine) as I drove her to the shops. She brightly remarked that although she and her friends did not read books, they did all watch Scrubs. I was rather flattened by such candour, but maybe after all Sue Barton would have been pleased.

adele said...

A very interesting post indeed. I remember the Sue Barton books. And does anyone here recall the terrific Monica Dickens books: ONE PAIR OF HANDS and ONE PAIR OF FEET? They were outstanding for showing you what life doing various jobs was like. And yes, why no YA set in hairdressing salons, apprenticeships, offices, university etc. It would be fun to see if publishers would take such a thing on. I suspect not!
Actually the world of WORK, apart from the meeja of course, isn't much written about even for adults.

Susie said...

Great post, Keren - and what madness to scrap careers advisors. I never read any sensible careerish stuff (not sure I was ever likely to become a girl detective - although even those are bit thin on the ground these days compared to ballerinas, ice princesses etc), but Sue Barton sounds fabulous.

I've been told that YA isn't acceptable once it goes 18+ and into universityland - but the UK YA market has changed massively in the last few years. And yeah, why haven't we got any 16-year-old apprentice plumber/hairdresser/working in a bank fiction? You're giving me ideas... :)

Leila said...

Yes, Adele, they were brilliant - so funny.
I think this post raises an important issue. Indeed, where are the Sue Barton books of today?

Mr Lonely said...

walking here with a smile. take care.. have a nice day ~ =D

http://www.lonelyreload.com (A Growing Teenager Diary) ..

Keren David said...

Susie - ah yes that was a point I meant to make, that 18 plus characters are considered too old for YA. A shame, I think.

I've seen a few hairdressers etc in YA fiction, but they quite often decide to chuck it in and go back to college to study art or drama...reflecting the prejudices of the writer, perhaps?

IzziPasco said...

It's a shame, and all too true. The only way I knew anything about the nursing career was because my dad's a doctor and put me in touch with people with life-experience. But I suppose the advice is out there now if you know where to look - places like www.nursingtimesjobs.com seem to have relevant career advice - it's how a few of my younger colleagues found lots of info that helped them find their jobs. It's just a shame that school careers services, even if they exist, aren't too helpful with the preliminary qualification side of things...