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Careers - Just the job?

At its best, it is a chance for a young person to discover what their role in life might be and get a taste of employment. At its worst, it's a wasted fortnight spent making the tea. So just how useful is traditional work experience?

In three years, Kathy Mountford has taken just three emergency calls from pupils with problems on their work placement. Two of them turned out to be issues that could be easily resolved. The third left her a little stumped, however. "One pupil rang and said he'd been asked to work until five, but he normally finished at three," Kathy says. "I had to take a deep breath, but at least he rang me instead of just not turning up again."

Their first excursion into the workplace can come as a shock to some teenagers. For its advocates, this is one of the benefits of work experience: a glimpse of the world outside school, where they can see the importance of time-keeping, standards of behaviour and dress codes in action.

But it's not always clear that work experience is all it's cracked up to be. Quite apart from doubts over what a pupil will gain if they're making the tea and doing the photocopying for two weeks, there is also the question of why they're doing it. For pupils destined to go to university, the point of sampling a career can seem obscure when work is at least six years away, while research suggests those closest to swapping education for employment are the most likely to find themselves in menial and unrewarding roles.

It's not surprising questions are being asked about whether the traditional fortnight's work experience is really the best way for schools to fulfil their requirement to provide key stage 4 pupils with work- related learning.

Finding suitable placements is also growing increasingly tricky. The expansion of 14 to 19 diplomas - which require that pupils must do an additional 10 days' work experience - will add to competition, while child protection paranoia has made some business owners concerned about taking responsibility for pupils.

As careers and personal development adviser at Heanor Gate Science College in Derbyshire, Kathy is in charge of placing around 240 pupils in work experience each year. She says the key to making sure pupils benefit is in the preparation and debriefing. "They need to know why they're doing it if it's going to be a proper learning experience," she says.

She believes the most successful placements tend to be those the pupil finds themselves, even if it is not an area they want to work in. "A lot of them are quite scared about going out," she says. "We're pushing them out of their comfort zone, and if they have found it themselves, they're more likely to get something out of it, even if it is not the best placement for them."

But allowing pupils to find their own placements carries a risk. A study published last year by Birmingham City University found a strong connection between the social status of a school's intake and the type of places they did their work experience. The danger is that work experience could end up reinforcing social divisions, and narrowing options for some.

The researchers found that the lower the number of pupils on free school meals (FSM), the higher the percentage of children who found placements in professional workplaces.

At a school with two per cent FSM, one in five pupils did their work experience in a medical, pharmaceutical or legal environment, compared with one in 33 pupils at a school with 53 per cent FSM.

When the children were interviewed following their placements, a third of those at the school with 53 per cent FSM said they had done mainly menial tasks, while just six per cent said they had been work shadowing or were given responsible tasks. At the school with two per cent FSM, one in 50 had been saddled with menial tasks, while one in four had been work shadowing and one in five given responsible tasks. None of the schools was effectively widening their pupils' career horizons, the researchers concluded.

While pupils at the schools with high FSM may have been frustrated at their placements - interviewers spoke to one girl who walked out after she had been asked to clean the toilets for the third time in a week - for their counterparts in more affluent areas, work experience is a different story. For them, it is often less about future careers and more about something to put on university application forms, or even a way of getting a summer job.

"Once you get pupils finding their own placements, you are straight into this social and economic correlation," says Tricia Le Gallais, senior lecturer at Birmingham City and co-author of the study. She sympathises with teachers given the job of sorting out 150 or more placements, but says having a range of experiences spread throughout a pupil's school life may be more effective than a two-week block in Year 10.

"The existing system means pupils are simply reproducing what their parents are doing, but it is naive to think that two weeks' work experience could challenge that," says Dr Le Gallais. "Career trajectories are already fixed by the time children leave primary school, but having a range of experiences could stop their options being closed down."

The idea of a different format for work experience gained support in a survey of schools carried out by the Scottish Parent Teacher Council in 2005. Almost six out of ten schools backed a change from the two-week approach, with 47 per cent in favour of a series of taster weeks spread throughout the year. Opinions on the current system ranged from saying it "works well here", to describing it as "a waste of time for most pupils".

Last year, the CBI, the employers' federation, launched an alternative approach to work-related learning in the West Midlands. The scheme sees companies go into schools to set the pupils real business challenges. Geoff Percy, chairman of the West Midlands and Oxfordshire CBI, says it can be a more effective way of developing work-related skills.

"Business has a role in inspiring children, but so many times you see examples of work experience where it becomes almost a tick-box exercise," he says. "Businesses feel they have done their social responsibility bit, and schools feel their children have gained work experience. But in my experience, a couple of weeks working in an office is neither here nor there."

So far eight schools have signed up to the scheme, with companies involved including QinetiQ, the defence equipment supplier, Severn Trent and Manganese Bronze, which makes London black taxis. Mr Percy says if the West Midlands pilot proves a success, it could be taken up in the rest of the country.

But work experience offers far more than the chance to size up a career or develop workplace skills, important though these are, says Andy Marshall. As Work-related Learning Manager for four Birmingham schools - Moseley, Small Heath, Golden Hillock and Saltley - he organises around 1,100 placements a year. He recognises that not all of them are successful, but says the difference it can make to a pupil's self-esteem makes it worthwhile.

"We often find the highest achievers in work experience aren't always the most academic, but they go out and perform brilliantly in the workplace," he says. Even pupils who want to go to university, for whom their entrance into the workplace is years off, can benefit from a different environment, he says.

For some children, those two weeks in Year 10 will be the first and last work experience they have before they get a job. "I don't believe people should be leaving school at 16 and becoming responsible adults when they have never had any experience of what it is like to be in employment," Mr Marshall says.

Tony Watts, visiting professor in career development at Derby University, recognises the value of work experience, but says that while pupils get a lot out of it, too much is expected of a two-week placement.

Instead, he believes work experience should run alongside other schemes, such as work shadowing for a day.

"There are other ways of exploring the world of work, and the notion that there should be one taste of work and that is it is absolutely wrong," he says. He cites a format used in Sweden until recently, where children had to have placements in each of three sectors of the economy - service, manufacturing and social services - as a way of using work experience to overcome gender and social boundaries that push girls into social care and lower income children into menial placements.

He says it is easy for schools to get bogged down in the organisational problems of arranging placements for 150-plus pupils, and for it to become an exercise in counting them out and then counting them back. But he says more planning to make sure placements complement each other can make the experience worthwhile.

For all its potential shortcomings, work experience is still a valuable way of getting children out of the school environment, says John McGurk, learning and development adviser for the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development. "When it's just a question of photocopying and making the tea, that gives it a bad name, but work experience can often be enormously enriching," he says.

At Heanor Gate, the second week of work experience has been replaced by other activities, such as employers coming into school, class trips to local firms, and business-related projects.

"We found the pupils did the placement they really wanted in the first week, and in the second week it would be somewhere they didn't want to go," says Kathy Mountford. "This way they get the chance to find out about more opportunities than if they just had a two-week block." Perhaps it's time to rethink the traditional approach to work placement, and accept that work experience and experience of work are not necessarily going to be the same thing.

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