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Fears over generic work experience

The phrases "work-related" or "work-based" are often bandied about in reference to the new diplomas, possibly to avoid describing them as "vocational"

The phrases "work-related" or "work-based" are often bandied about in reference to the new diplomas, possibly to avoid describing them as "vocational"

The phrases "work-related" or "work-based" are often bandied about in reference to the new diplomas, possibly to avoid describing them as "vocational".

In May last year, Alan Johnson, then education secretary, described the qualifications in effusive terms. They would deliver "essential skills and knowledge, hands-on experience and employer-based learning to prepare young people for work and further study".

Also last year, Ken Boston, chief executive of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA), told MPs that aspects of the diploma curriculum for 16- to 18-year-olds would be delivered "in the workplace or work-related settings".

One year on, controversy is building over just how specific the work experience element has to be, as QCA guidance now makes it clear that it need not be in a sector related to the diploma's subject.

"Generic" work experience, in a workplace unconnected to the diploma course, will certainly not offer them on-the-job training.

But the QCA argues that this was never meant to be the purpose of the diplomas.

It says they are designed to be a middle path between the purely academic route of GCSEs and A-levels, and vocational courses such as apprenticeships.

One source involved in building partnerships with employers said the fear was that "you might be doing the engineering diploma, and able to tick the box marked 'work experience' by doing 10 days in a travel agent".

He added he hoped this would not happen.

"People around the country are working really hard to provide a high-quality experience for pupils," he said - a fact borne out by testimony from some local partnerships.

The Government this week stressed that it had support from industry as it announced an extra pound;50 million to train teachers to teach the diplomas.

Nick Gooderson, of the Construction Skills council, which has designed the construction and the built environment diploma, said he expected all 3,054 pupils starting the course in September to gain relevant work experience.

But he admitted this would be more of a challenge in 2009, when numbers increase.

However, he said there was a benefit to pupils working in environments not related to their diploma subject, in that employers value generic employability skills.


If working in 14-19 partnerships has taught Chiquita Henson one lesson for the advent of diplomas, it is the importance of offering pupils only what the local community can deliver.

When the diplomas are introduced in September, it will be the first time many schools have worked so closely with other education institutions, employers and the community.

But Ms Henson, headteacher of Cirencester Deer Park School in Gloucestershire, already offers her pupils five applied learning courses through a South Cotswold partnership of seven schools and colleges.

Sometimes it is easy to provide work experience: for example pupils studying beauty can work with members of the public in the salon at nearby Cirencester College.

But it can be more difficult in subjects such as motor vehicle maintenance: the nearest big car plant is in Swindon.

"If every 14-19 partnership in the area was to reach out to Swindon, that would lead to too many calls on one employer," Ms Henson said.

"Unfortunately - how do I say this - schools have sometimes taken from employers and not given much back. We have to deliver some benefits for the employers, and clearly that is around developing the workforce they need."

So she is focusing on what South Cotswold does best: heritage tourism. She hopes to find work experience for her construction pupils (above) on listed buildings, dry stone walling and building with Cotswold stone.

Realistically, as more diplomas are offered, she knows it will become more difficult to offer pupils specialist experience that is directly relevant to their diploma.

Compromises will have to be made: the creative and media students may not be able to get front-of-house or box office customer service experience, but they may experience similar work in a call centre or a bank.

"But I think there should be an entitlement, at some point in the course, to the specialist experience that they need," she says.

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