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Fireman, astronaut - or celebrity?

By Georgina Pattinson
Today programme

Leona Lewis perfoms at the opening of Westfield Shopping Mall
Do all girls really want to win the X Factor?
Reality TV has been blamed for many things: not least fostering an apparently unquenchable yearning among schoolchildren to become celebrities.

The new culture minister, Barbara Follett, was the latest to frown at such childish ambitions. "Kids nowadays just want to be famous. If you ask little girls, they either want to be footballers' wives or win the X Factor.

"Our society is in danger of being Barbie-dolled," she chided.

In March, a survey for the Association of Teachers and Lecturers found that 60% of teachers questioned said their pupils most aspired to be David Beckham - and that 32% said their pupils modelled themselves on heiress Paris Hilton.

More than a third said pupils wanted to be famous for the sake of being famous.

But do Britain's boys and girls really just want to be a shopping-obsessed Wag or a manufactured pop star?

Yes, says former Mirror editor and talent contest judge Piers Morgan - who admits his own guilt in fostering the celebrity culture - and believes that Britain is drowning in Z-list celebrity wastrels.

"Unfortunately, we are now in a society where millions of young people at school genuinely see fame for the sake of it and celebrity status without any discernable talent as a career option - and that's clearly ridiculous," he says.

Jean-Francois Clervoy for Nasa in 1999
Take this French astronaut into schools and say that surely has got to be a better career option than sitting in a room with Jade Goody being thick
Piers Morgan

An understanding of talent and hard work is needed - as well as role models, he says. One such role model - French astronaut Jean-Francois Clervoy - who's flown three shuttle missions - is visiting a school in London to talk about the glory of space travel and the hard work needed to become an astronaut.

He says he tells kids that "being an astronaut is being part of a great human adventure, the challenge is very intense, and when you succeed the sense of pride and sense of accomplishment is very rewarding".

"You will feel you have done something in your life that is useful for human kind," he says.

Got ambition?

Ironically, even celebrities seem to recognise the vacuity that comes with being a celeb. In a recent interview with The Times, TV star Jack Osbourne - who lived out much of his teenage years on one of the first reality shows - said: "I wanted to be a fireman. Or an astronaut. Or a soldier. I still kinda do. Is it too late?"

In fact, young people are idealistic and practical about their future, says Peter Mitchell, senior education adviser to Edge, an independent education foundation which raises the status of vocational and practical learning.

With 18 years experience as a headteacher behind him, Mr Mitchell also believes there's little evidence of pernicious celebritisation.

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Sally Davis, Growing Ambitions

"Young people still do have that enthusiasm," he says. "Ask young people what they want to be - they say a nurse, a journalist, a plumber an electrician.

"At a school age, they want to be the best in that profession - they want be a journalist for the Times or the BBC - and quite right too. They've got ambition. And why not at that age?"

But while they retain their idealism, he says society does not value it as much as it should and puts too much value on academia.

In fact, it's all about opening up possibilities, says Sally Davis, who runs Growing Ambitions, an organisation which puts schools in touch with people in the workplace.

She says it started with the belief that young people don't have enough ideas in front of them - and that their sources of information like, say, soap operas, give them a limited horizon.

"You have to open their eyes in the beginning," she says. "You can't aspire to be a bio-technician if you've never come across a person who's done that job. The best people to give that information are the people from the workplace."

In the push to defy the celebrity culture, it's an initiative that Piers Morgan might well approve of.

"We've got to stop the epidemic," he says.

"We've got to get to these kids. Take this French astronaut into schools...and say to them that surely has got to be a better career option for you than sitting in a room with Jade Goody being thick."

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