In the early Seventies, work experience was a minority occupation. Early morning paper rounds or a Saturday shelf-stacking stint was the nearest most children came to the grown-up world of work. Fewer than one in seven pupils would leave school with any kind of formal nine-to-five work experience.
But since the Education (Work Experience) Act reached the statute books in 1973, there has been a huge change in the status of work experience. Nowadays, nine out of ten schoolchildren will get out of the classroom and into the workplace during their final year of compulsory schooling.
The days when you could take your pick of apprenticeships are long gone. Work and experience go together - you can't get one without the other. But do 10 days on the shop or factory floor really help a student's employment prospects? In short, does work experience work? Colin Cooke-Priest, chief executive of the Trident Trust, which organises work placements, says it does. The trust was set up in 1972 as a pilot project between three sixth-form colleges and local employers in Hampshire. "In those days many employers believed the school system was failing to provide young people with the skills and attitudes business wanted," Mr Cooke-Priest recalls.
Trident's three-pronged ap-proach involves personal challenge, community involvement and work experience. Success in all three areas is rewarded with a certificate. But the scheme's popularity soon saw the trust expand its placements beyond the county boundaries.
Boosted by the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative, the trust quadrupled its number of annual placements from 40,000 to 160,000 between 1985 and 1995, accounting for one in three work placements and making it the United Kingdom's largest provider of work experience.
Mr Cooke-Priest likens the trust's role to that of a broker, drawing up portfolios of opportunities at its 60 regional offices, matching them with pupils' preferences and briefing the young hopefuls.
He believes that despite its short duration, work experience can have a significant effect on the employment chances of those who take part. Outside the classroom and without the safety in numbers of their peer group, young people are judged on their merits, with punctuality, presentation, communication skills and self-confidence coming to the fore.
"Key skills have become a buzzword in education," Mr Cooke-Priest notes, "and they are just what we were talking about all those years ago.
"Evidence shows that pupils who have not been achieving in the classroom go out to the world of work and see the light at the end of the tunnel. They suddenly realise that unless they get their act together they are going to end up making the tea and sweeping the floor."
The belief that academic under-achievers in particular may respond well to the differing demands of the work environment is backed up by the findings of How Effective is Work Experience?, a report published last October by the Social Market Foundation, a free-market think tank, in association with the trust. "Pupils who have progressively rejected authority at school," it concludes, "may respond better to the unfamiliar authority of a company - one based on a community of adult colleagues rather than teachers responsible for child pupils."
Exposure to the realities of daily work can produce an "incentive effect", it says, spurring pupils on and improving behaviour in schools, a judgment shared by the 1996 Dearing Review of 16-19 Qualification's observation that experience in a workplace setting can have positive effects on learning and motivation.
In the SMF's survey, 80 per cent of pupils reported increased understanding of the workplace and 60 per cent said they had gained confidence as a result. Motivation and interaction with others also improved.
Even teachers noticed the difference. One says:"One of the girls in my class who was always in trouble and very lazy, suddenly started to answer questions and would tell the other girls to be quiet when I was teaching. It was very strange to see - and encouraging."
Katharine Raymond, senior research fellow at the SMF and co-author of the report, says: "Work experience is most useful for children who leave school with few qualifications and a lack of basic social skills."
A shining reference from a work placement employer can brighten up a pupil's record of achievement. But she adds, its present status as a curriculum add-on means work experience "doesn't really get the kudos it deserves".
The Education White Paper of November 1996 says every student is entitled to two weeks' work experience. But this is not written into the national curriculum, nor is it assessed by the Office for Standards in Education. Until it is and we have a nationally-organised, properly-accredited scheme, Mr Cooke-Priest says, a significant minority of schools will still see work experience as little more than a chance to "get rid of the little buggers for a fortnight".