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Lessons in failure at the grindstone

Work experience should not be a dumping ground for the disaffected, argues Jeanette Petherbridge

I have always found it difficult to meet pupils in roles where the teacher-pupil power relationship is reversed. I feel uncomfortable if my bank account is managed by the pupil who once could not tell the time, but I am also thrilled to see such progress.

It is wonderful to see a former pupil reporting the news or raising a family. So, my surprise at seeing them in other roles no doubt says more about my need to adjust my perceptions of who they are rather than any change on their part.

I have always seen them as pupils, falling short of perfection in some way, and not as human beings, for whom such a definition is a qualifying criterion. I wonder whether this is why, when teachers visit pupils on work experience, they return with Jekyll-and-Hyde stories.

Clearly the context has changed, but the pupil is not a different person. From a recent study of small groups of pupils in five schools and in placements in 10 industries, it was evident that there are lessons we can learn from workplace learning, but the idea that disaffected pupils will be different people in the workplace is grounded on very scant evidence.

It is true that an important feature in the success of workplace learning is that pupils have the opportunity to work alongside adults.

The situation is moreover new and confusing, which provides a stimulus to learn quickly. Flexible schedules and more relaxed social regulations are preferable to those at school. Nevertheless, the fact that young people enjoy greater freedom does not mean that their learning is more "effective".

New skills tended to be low level, job-specific and with little transferable value. Employment will have to offer a good deal more than it currently does if it is to enhance literacy and numeracy. Without support from the educationist to make sense of their experiences, pupils were inclined to record only lengthy accounts of low-level tasks, such as how to fold letters into an envelope.

Few pupils were able to draw conclusions which either adjusted their prior perceptions or were applicable elsewhere. For the majority, work transition goals were seen as their principal purposes, and they had achieved this within a short time. Challenge was created by doing work experience itself, not the work tasks. Extending work experience over a longer period, even as part of a general national vocational qualification course, would decrease the novelty, deprive it of its essential problematic, and consequently of its challenge. It concerns me greatly, therefore, that Sir Ron Dearing recommends workplace learning as the panacea for pupils who are disaffected from 14 years upwards.

There is no evidence that such pupils learn in the workplace any better than in school. To be fair, there is no evidence that it is any worse either, but I do not recall any stampede to join Youth Training Schemes. Motivation is unlikely to survive recognition that their work experience is not "real" work, but another means of demonstrating that you can do adequately what is required. Most pupils enjoyed work experience, but they did not enjoy work, or the prospect of it stretching out endlessly ahead: "I'd rather work, like, shorter hours. I suppose you get used to it after a while. The first week was quite tiring. I kept saying to myself, 'Oh, I can't wait to get back to school'. " (Department store)

"I weighed out from 8am till break at 10am. Same again up until lunch. (Boring and uninteresting!) I'm still doing weighing out and it's 12.40pm." (Food laboratory).

Pupils may become more socialised into work once they are paid, but I doubt that they will feel any happier about going to work. Pupils who are disaffected with school (whatever kind of curriculum it offers) need longer to mature and fresh opportunities later in life to return to education and take proper advantage of it.

They certainly do not need to be rejected sooner, and labelled a "failure" by a system more geared to employment sorting than social and economic mobility. Groups of pupils often expressly reject the world of school, but the day that young people express no opposition will be a sad day for democracy.

Under-achievement is another matter. Of course it is important in our society to have sound general education, but what evidence do we have that this will be best achieved in the workplace when this already provides an environment that undervalues the talents of most employees and is challenging and rewarding for the privileged few?

Work experience has tremendous educational potential for all pupils. It will be nothing short of tragic if we abuse it as a means of hiding legitimate discontent from public view.

Jeanette Petherbridge is student fellow at the department of education and continuing studies, University of Birmingham.

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