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Social class may dictate quality of work experience

Work-experience placements for secondary pupils are often allocated on the basis of social class rather than ability. And they do "little or nothing" to widen disadvantaged pupils' career horizons, according to researchers from Birmingham City University.

The researchers investigated the allocation of work-experience placements to 1,000 fourth-year pupils in five secondaries. Four were comprehensives, with between 10 per cent and 63 per cent of pupils qualifying for free school meals, and the fifth was a selective school where only 2 per cent of pupils receive free school meals.

Their findings were presented this week at the British Educational Research Association conference.

Only 2 per cent of pupils in the selective school spent their two-week placement doing menial tasks. A teacher at the school said: "Our students wouldn't see themselves working in a shop."

By contrast, one of the comprehensives sent more than a third of its teenagers to such jobs.

The researchers believe that this is partly a result of schools encouraging pupils to arrange their own placements: those with well- connected, professional parents have greater access to white-collar jobs.

One selective-school pupil told researchers: "I was interested in law, and my dad helped me find a placement. The barrister was a friend of my dad, and the judge is a friend of a friend, so I sort of got it like that."

But teachers at the comprehensives often felt that more elite placements were simply not available to their pupils. One teacher said: "It just seems that all the vets' jobs and all the high-flying jobs have already gone to grammar school students." All schools provided lists of potential employers to pupils, and helped direct them to relevant placements. But the researchers believe that long-established links between schools and employers can help perpetuate class differences.

Similarly, comprehensive pupils are more likely to study vocational courses, which are in turn linked to manual-labour work placements.

The researchers recommend that, instead of undertaking a single, two-week placement, pupils are offered a range of work-experience placements of different types.

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