School inspectors are in no doubt that work-related learning can rescue youngsters disenchanted with their studies. Feedback from those visiting schools supports the view that properly structured, assessed and accredited experience can benefit all pupils, whatever their ability.
But it is under-achievers who benefit the most. Many 14 to 16-year-olds on work-related learning were reinvigorated after a lacklustre early secondary school career, particularly those who had shown promise at primary school, but developed social or behavioural problems.
John Mattick, an Ofsted inspector, has witnessed the benefits post-14.
"Schools appear to use extended work-related learning as a strategy to boost commitment for some young people, including contact with adults other than teachers and parents," he says. "They can see more to work than a job.
Some young people need wider learning opportunities, a fresh experience in a new environment."
Since 1998, selected pupils have been allowed to replace some national curriculum subjects with work-related learning programmes. Two reports in particular offer compelling evidence of success following the reform.* The inspectors found that many of the young people had become more self-confident and their behaviour had improved. They had clearer and more ambitious plans for the future. In some cases, attendance improved and GCSE results were better.
But developments are hampered by poor communications and a resistance to change. Ofsted has identified two possible factors: the generosity of employers often goes without public recognition; and, despite the success of many programmes, schools rarely publicise them. "Knowing the difficulties of organising and providing it, and the additional professional effort, they're trying to avoid over-demand," says Mr Mattick.
Through their reports, the inspectors are able to offer more than a critique on work-related learning; they also give advice on good practice. Mr Mattick says that meticulous planning is needed to get the best learning out of the workplace experience. "It's very demanding on schools, intermediaries and employers," he says. "You always need a Plan B."
Back in school, teachers must try to relate their teaching to the workplace. Parents and careers advisers have to be involved. Because of the complexity, Ofsted believes that programmes work best when headed by a senior manager.
Ofsted recommends the creation of a national framework to help all parties understand what is expected of them, work which the Department for Education and Skills has in hand.
It is also important for young people to know what they have achieved.
Progression and accreditation need to be addressed nationally. "It's a worry to us that the range of qualifications for young people can be limited," says Mr Mattick. "They get a level 1 (GSCE equivalent), but have nothing to progress to. Occasionally, certificates that have been developed locally can be valuable, but they want to have nationally approved qualifications if they move to a different location. If they're spending a day or two out of school, they need to achieve something solid."
Another deterrent is the status of qualifications in work-related learning.
Some qualifications cannot be completed because certain elements are prohibited to people under 16. Others do not development of key skills or do not provide progression routes post-16.
And although schools have gone to great lengths to help their students get awards, many are not considered GCSE-equivalent and do not count towards performance tables. "What kind of image is that for young people and their parents?" said Mr Mattick.
Nor does work-related learning have to be just on the shop floor. Mr Mattick believes that e-learning can help young people to prepare for work experience . "Employers can also provide seminars and workshops that schools could tap into," he said.
Small group teaching, off-site working, senior management time and extensive liaison all push up the cost. Typically, the inspectors found that in 2001, one day a week off site cost pound;1,000 a year, or about half the annual funding per pupil. But, they considered that most of the schemes provided value for money.
Under the Government's 14-19 strategy, work-related learning will be a universal entitlement and extended work-related learning will be more widely available. Yet few schools have a whole-school policy involving every department.
Mr Mattick believes that schools must "build coherence between what students learn away from and in school. Half a million young people are involved at key stage 4 every year - it's such a solid part of the educational landscape that we need to get the maximum benefit from it."
*Extending Work-related Learning at Key Stage 4' (2001) and Key Stage 4: Towards a Flexible Curriculum (2003), both published by Ofsted.
WHAT THE INSPECTORS RECOMMEND
* Everyone involved - school, employer and pupil - must know what is expected of them
* Students should gain recognised qualifications and something to move on to
* Schools should produce plans that include something for every pupil
* Everybody should be aware of the extra costs involved
* Schools, Trident and work-experience co-ordinators need to appreciate how much employers give when they agree to take part
* The appropriate authorities and relevant agencies should give voluntary organisations, which often deal with very vulnerable young people, more money and work closely with them
* Local education authorities and other relevant bodies should improve what's on offer for young people not in mainstream or special schools