Employers taking pupils and students on work experience are constantly breaking the law over health and safety and minimum working hours. Health regulations are often infringed because of ignorance, although many firms have been found flouting legislation.
Evidence has emerged from studies by the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority in advance of a wide-ranging government review of careers education and guidance in schools and colleges. It is further supported by the findings of a national survey carried out by The TES and the Institute of Careers Guidance, published to coincide with the ICG annual conference that opens at Warwick University today.
When the careers service was effectively privatised under the 1993 Employment Act, it was expected that the service would make school-based vocational education and work-related training more relevant to the national curriculum and needs of individual students.
There had been criticisms that schools and colleges were out of touch with the needs of industry and commerce, and that work-related training failed to match the needs of the national curriculum. Consortia of industry interests, trainers and local education authorities formed careers companies that were charged with making the education, advice and guidance more relevant.
The TES\ICG survey shows a considerable growth in successful schemes such as the North Tyneside and Newcastle careers clubs. But a lack of resources, cash, suitable labour market information, training and time to give individual guidance has hampered similar developments in many other parts of Britain.
A whole swath of reforms is expected from David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, from the end of this month to the middle of next year, to improve careers education and guidance.
Under the Conservatives, the Department for Education and Employment commissioned five projects from SCAA to develop national guidelines on learning outcomes from careers education and guidance, recommend a national development programme, promote innovation in vocational education at key stage 4 and raise awareness of the best practices.
The SCAA recommendations on key stage 4 work-related learning will be given to ministers later this month. The rest will be published over the coming year by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), the merged SCAA and National Council for Vocational Qualifications.
SCAA is also developing guidelines for schools on providing a work-related context to subjects across the curriculum, and using labour market information to make it more practical. But careers officers are concerned about that information. More than seven out of ten (72 per cent) responding to the TES\ICG survey said it was inadequate for the needs of the careers service.
They expressed concern, too, over the "lack of quality and relevance" of much of the work experience offered to pupils and students. This was a concern shared by SCAA and in uppermost in the mind of Mr Blunkett, who wants a shake-up particularly of what is on offer at key stage 4 (14 to 16-year-olds). Although the SCAA review was set up by the previous government, it has the full support of Labour.
Mr Blunkett said: "It is crucial that we change the way in which KS4 addresses the needs of those youngsters for whom the traditional agenda, the traditional curriculum, is no longer relevant, so that we can link them to the world of work."
However, concerns have inevitably been expressed at various aspects of the commission. Teachers already under pressure to meet the statutory requirements of the national curriculum are worried about finding time to fit in work-related experiences at KS4.
Where employers are involved, there are concerns about inconsistencies in work experience, and about how far work-related learning can equip young people for real working life. One of the problems here, according to SCAA, is the lack of consistency in employers' needs.