Realistic rethink needed on job experience

In my annual search for orderexcuses in the Scottish Qualifications Authority results, I have been trying to find reasons for some poorer than expected S5 Higher results. A number of students just missed a C pass, though there were few problems with the more able students, who performed as predicted.

One common factor emerging is the proportion of our students who have part-time jobs. A survey at Kilsyth Academy a couple of years ago revealed that most of our S5 and S6 students are in part-time employment.

The jobs include the traditional paper rounds, but other work includes waiting at tables, kitchen work, serving at catering stalls at football matches, shop work, hairdressing, farming and serving in ice cream vans. Their jobs occupy from three or four up to 24 hours a week in the evenings and at weekends.

With teachers trying to constrain their work to 35 hours a week, what hope of success has a girl or boy who spends almost the same amount of time in school and works another 24 hours and tries to fit in time for homework and essential leisure activities?

Local regulations insist that any work done outside school is constrained and safe. They also indicate the time and duration. Work permits are demanded for every job. Such is the demand at Kilsyth Academy for these work permits that we always struggle to locate the forms when asked for them. Last year only three forms were issued.

If authorities and the Scottish Executive are serious about such issues, urgent action needs to be taken to apply local bye-laws. Parents tend to support the student's working for reasons of independence, financial and social.

Employers exploit many of these young people by arranging the work so that there is no need to give meal breaks. Requests by the students for time off for extra study can be met with the question: "Do you want to keep this job or not?"

Every school devotes a huge amount of time and effort to arranging and checking the work experience placements for S4 students. A week of their class teaching time is lost and a large proportion of their personal and social education time is needed for the feedback and certification of this experience.

Why bother, when a year later most will be undertaking unpoliced, unchecked but paid work? There is much more experience of the world of work in actually completing the job on a regular basis than in playing at it for a few days.

Students enjoy work experience but in many cases their placement is limited in terms of time on the job and the variety of skills learned. Some S4 pupils do not get the privilege of full work experience because of our concerns about their behaviour or honesty. We know that sending them to an employer can mean an unsatisfactory experience for the school and the possible loss of a placement for future students.

Those pupils who miss out are generally the ones who leave school as soon as they can and immediately attempt to enter the world of work. The bright, able students do their week's placement easily and happily, receive glowing reports and yet do not enter the working society on a full-time basis for a further six years.

Can we not restrict school work experience to those who need it and accept that real work is an experience capable of certification?

I recall some years ago sitting in a local bar with colleagues after a parents' evening. At around 11pm, a boy who looked about 13 or 14 entered carrying a bundle of newspapers. He made his way around a busy bar asking each patron if he wanted a paper. I declined but asked him which school he attended. He gave me the name of a local special school.

I then asked where his employer was and was told that the boss picked him up from home at 10.30pm and dropped him off to go around the pubs and get rid of all the papers.

If this is the true work experience of some of our most vulnerable children, a new approach is certainly needed.

John Mitchell is headteacher of Kilsyth Academy, North LanarkshireIf you wish to comment, e-mail week: Sheilah Jackson, head of Queensferry Primary, Edinburgh

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