Special Report on Courses: Softly, do not tread on their dreams: Using the correct jargon and making all the right choices can still leave the mind boggling. Joy Sadler empathises

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The Independent Online
MY GRANDFATHER would not let my mother take a typing course. New-fangled writing machines? No future in that. Eighty years ago, as now, foreseeing the shape of the working world was rather a gamble. Choosing the right courses for careers starting several years hence takes real clairvoyance.

Does it matter? Are subjects directly related to careers? Needlework and art: fashion design - or tattooing? Biology and sociology: social work - or butchery?

Every profession has its trade jargon, and it's easy for those immersed in 'edujargon' to rattle on about Key Stage 4, the national curriculum and ATs, GNVQs and modular degrees, getting ABB in your As (which equals 26 points]) and a strategy for your Ucas form. It's not so easy, with the head's beady eye on you, to interrupt in mid-flow to ask what on earth that means. Apart from anything else, your children would never forgive you. But never mind, the forms will sort it out. Ticks and boxes and columns. Everyone takes boxes 1-4 and then chooses one each from columns 5-7, unless you are taking music, in which case . . .

Broad and balanced, maybe, but where is the human face of educational choice? Well, sometimes in the careers office where parents pour out their complaints about 'unreasonable' schools. 'Studying religion - either you've got it or you haven't' 'Social studies indeed] I'm not having my child turned into a loony leftie.' 'Home economics? Sounds like tarted-up cookery - or stretching the house-keeping.'

Young people, too, bring their resentments, often based on misunderstanding. Teachers all want to push you into their subject - do they get a bonus for it or something? 'Why do I have to waste time on English and languages when I want to be a research scientist?'

The mind boggles even more when contemplating higher courses. Are there jobs for philosophy graduates as latter-day Aristotles (did he earn a living at it anyway?) or do they all become TV pundits? What is terrestrial ecology, or social anthropology, or integrated information engineering - and what can you do with them?

You might be hard put to it sometimes to see any connections between degree subjects - or A-level or GCSE or other subjects - and jobs. There is one - in the mind: trained to absorb and use information, applying the process to solving problems in other contexts and acting on the results. The option blocks and national curriculum and forms and ticks are, of course, designed to take account of that.

But parents and teachers should adopt W B Yeats: 'Tread softly, because you tread on their dreams.' Childhood ambitions, like childhood toys, may be left behind but, you never know, that former My Little Pony enthusiast might be the first woman to win the Derby, and the space-

mad lad might colonise Mars. If you respect their ambitions and keep their confidence you have a better chance of selling the idea that maths is essential for a space traveller.

A 14-year-old girl inquired some years ago how to train as a spy. I sent her a number of suggestions - developing a facility for languages, powers of observation, ability to get on with people among them. If she followed them, she still may not be a spy, but she is likely to be the kind of recruit welcomed in many walks of life.

The author was the first local authority careers information officer.