Is five too young to start thinking about a career?

Founder of Miniversity, Michelle Owens Gregory
Founder of Miniversity, Michelle Owens Gregory

What do you want to be when you grow up?,’’ it’s the perennial question posed by adults to children.

Responses will invariably include ‘astronaut’, ‘international footballer’, and, these days, ‘YouTuber’.....maybe not the most pragmatic 9-to-5 career choices, but still, children will be informed they can be anything they want to be, just as long as they put their mind to it.

A child taking part in Miniversity

A child taking part in Miniversity

But surely there must be very few people that end up doing what they dreamed they would when asked that pivotal question.

The truth is, that as young children we don’t really know what many jobs entail. Indeed, formal careers guidance doesn’t begin in earnest until we are well into secondary school.

With the retirement age rising to 67 by 2026-28, young people will soon work for 50 years of more, so choosing the profession you want to follow, and the subjects and courses that you will get you there, is a decision of paramount importance, and hurried, expedient decisions, made in secondary school, may not be the best in the long-term.

But there is an innovative Ulster company which is taking a different approach by giving primary school children the chance to sample a whole plethora of careers, through the fun use of ICT.

Miniversity, founded by Belfast-based entrepreneur Michelle Owens Gregory, is an award-winning ‘edutainment’ company running school clubs and holiday camps specifically designed for children aged four-12.

Since its inception five years ago the company has been hugely successful, with thousands of children having attended its afterschools clubs and holiday camps.

Michelle explained: “There is no careers education or advice in the primary school curriculum. Technology is such an important part of children’s lives and combining careers education with soft skills ICT knowledge is a fantastic start. I believe there is no reason why children cannot create their own presentations, spreadsheets or websites.’’

Miniversity teaches children about a whole variety of careers from dentists to drone programmers, vets to vloggers, engineers to estate agents.

‘‘Throughout the course of an academic year we would have new careers every term, we literally have hundreds - and we’ve always got new ones,’’ explained Michelle.

‘‘It’s all about fun learning - children are enjoying it, they are having fun. They don’t realise they are working, but it is extremely educational. I will get emails from parents saying ‘I can’t believe my daughter knows how to do a bar chart in Excel and she’s only 7!’ ’’

Miniversity covers all university career topics using a variety of computer programmes such as Windows Movie Maker, SCRATCH Coding, Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Publisher, Paint, and more.

In addition it offers keyboard skills, touch typing, email and internet safety and there is a big emphasis on presentation skills, everything children will need later in life.

Miniversity has a lot of funded schools on board and Michelle is passionate about encouraging children to aim high, particularly children from under-privileged areas where aspirations may be low and there aren’t role models for them.

She said:‘‘Perhaps mum and dad are not working, or not talking about careers or university. When we go into these schools, we can see that these children haven’t heard of some jobs. It is amazing when you show them something new and they love doing it.’’

In essence Miniversity is about planting seeds early on that make children want to carry on in education and take up all the opportunities offered to them. It also gives children a fantastic grounding for secondary school.

‘‘I will get parents of first years emailing me to tell me their child is streets above others in IT in their class,’’ said Michelle.

‘‘I can also envisage these children when they are adults saying ‘I hadn’t a clue what I wanted to do, but I was always good at art and I attended six years of Miniversity and we learned about being an illustrator and a graphic designer, and that’s why I chose to do it.’ To have that influence is amazing.’’