Work experience week is a recognised rite of passage for most pupils. For generations, learning who has sugar in their tea, how to use the photocopier and where to take the mail has been their first experience of the workplace.
But menial chores could soon be replaced by meaningful challenges. Teachers in Industry is a scheme being piloted by Heads, Teachers and Industry (HTI), a business-led organisation that aims to help teachers acquire management skills. It is hoping to raise the standard of work experience and alert businesses to the potential of those nervous students turning up with their sandwiches for a first taste of work.
In the scheme, teachers are assigned to a major business for 11 days, usually spread over two or three months. In the recent pilot, some opted for a continuous two-week stint, but most chose to spread their visits over several months. Either way, the Department for Education and Employment covered the cost of supply. Their task was to create a structured work-experience package, enabling students to make a genuine contribution to the company while developing key skills.
Teacher placements within industry are nothing new. But the current emphasis is on what teachers can offer rather than just on what they can learn. Project manager Marilyn Kinnon emphasises the equal partnership between schools and companies. "It's no longer about what teachers take away," she says. "It's about what they leave behind."
But what can a teacher possibly have to offer the giants of international commerce? Lots, says Ms Kinnon - a former teacher who came up with the idea for the project while on secondment herself. "One of the buzz phrases in industry at the moment is 'learning skills'. And who knows more about learning than teachers?" Participants in the scheme are given the status of visiting consultants. They are there at the request of the company - and they call the shots. They choose when and where to attend, what they want to see and do. And when they finish, they leave behind a document offering an analysis of the learning opportunities within the company. They act like any other business consultants, but without the sky-high fees.
"Businesses are hungry to be involved in education," says Ms Kinnon. "They are desperate to forge links with young people. Teachers can help them do that. Companies want to improve the training they can offer youngsters, but they lack the time and expertise to do that properly."
Surprisingly, even major companies such as food giant McVitie's have failed, until now, to see work placements as a valuable ingredient in the recipe for success. Jane Bester, a teacher at Willesden high school in Brent, north London, took up the challenge of creating a work experience programme that would benefit company and student.
"McVitie's hadn't been involved in work experience before," she says. "Relatives of staff would go in for a week - but it was all fairly random."
Working with the human resources department, Ms Bester developed a 10-day programme. The initial three-day induction offers an overview of the company. Ingredients, baking, packaging and marketing are all part of the experience as the student plays "follow the biscuit". He or she then chooses a department in which to specialise for the next six days. They are given tasks that carry responsibility - without the risk of sending the share price plummeting or causing a shortage of Jaffa Cakes.
Students who work in human resources, for example, will be expected to contribute an article to the company's internal newsletter, spend time on reception, develop a health and safety project and conduct a survey about the canteen. The final day's presentation reflects the work they have done and the progress made.
Merrial Knight, head of Years 10 and 11 at Hayesfield upper school in Bath, was based at the Bristol headquarters of Royal amp; Sun Alliance. She spent much of her 11 days talking to school-leavers to determine what they had found difficult in the transition from education to industry. She also shadowed an induction course and sat in on job interviews.
Ms Knight outlined possible improvements to the work experience programme - then she turned the tables. She arranged for some Royal amp; Sun Alliance staff to spend a few days on "school experience", observing young people in their habitat. "Each generation has its own outlook and culture. And a lot of people in the business were out of touch with current attitudes," she says.
In turn, Jane Dyke of the life services department went to Hayesfield to discuss records of achievement and job applications with Ms Knight's classes. She was surprised at how much had changed since her schooldays. "Young people now are under more pressure than ever. It will be useful when dealing with job applicants or new recruits to have seen the environment they are coming from."
But while the pilot's main aim was to help businesses, the scheme has also proved to be outstanding professional development for teachers. All the early participants boast of gaining more than just a week out of the classroom. "What came across strongly is the emphasis businesses place on key skills," says Ms Knight. "Qualifications in themselves don't carry the weight they used to. And yet, at school, we are still very results-oriented.
"It made me see that we need to change our approach. Developing team-building skills, for example should be at the heart of every activity. Job interviews have moved on since I was young. The questions now specifically assess the key skills."
Marilyn Kinnon points out that none of the teachers put themselves up for the pilot. HTI selected schools where senior management had already been involved in industry, then asked heads to nominate a staff member. The chosen six had little idea of what was involved, and most were terrified by the prospect of meeting high-level executives - and, what's more, having to tell them how they could improve their multi-million-pound companies.
"The idea seemed so audacious," says Ms Knight. "I wasn't sure my opinion was worth much. I felt I would be wasting the valuable time of important people."
In an attempt to settle nerves and to help them feel part of a team, the pilot teachers emailed each other a diary of each day's events. All had reservations about the contribution they could make. But by the end of the programme, they all presented confident and useful analyses to their "clients".
Ms Kinnon hopes the DfEE will agree to expand the pilot into a full-scale project, probably in 2002. A decision is expected this summer. She believes the six teachers already involved are a convincing advertisement for the scheme. "Watching their self-esteem grow has been astonishing," she says. "Teachers have taken a bashing recently. But these six went into successful businesses and came out knowing they had a lot to offer. That's largely down to the support and respect they got from the companies. It shows what teachers can achieve when they are treated like professionals."
Teachers interested in placements in industry can contact HTI on 0247 641 0104 or e-mail: email@example.com
HEADS, TEACHERS AND INDUSTRY
HTI was founded in 1986 by a group of business directors who wanted to help teachers acquire management skills.
* It is based at the University of Warwick, but operates nationally.
* Its aim is to provide skills-based professional development for teachers, and to promote relationships between businesses and schools.
* It arranges up to 25 long-term secondments annually - allowing senior educationists to work as managers in business for up to a year.
* It has also provided placements for more than 300 teachers since 1986.
* Originally a non profit-making charity, HTI now operates as a trust and helps fund educational research and development that supports business learning.
* It is one of eight regional administrators for the National Professional Qualification for Headteachers (NPQH).