A worthwhile experience or a wasted opportunity?
Work experience is seen as an increasingly important step towards a pupil securing their dream career. But new research suggests that those who attend independent schools are much more likely to gain real benefits from it than their state-sector counterparts.
A YouGov poll of 19 to 24-year-olds carried out earlier this year found that 81 per cent of those who attended private schools believed work experience at school had helped them decide on a job, compared with just 59 per cent of former grammar pupils and 54 per cent of those who attended comprehensives. There were similar gaps when the respondents were asked how much help the experience had been in getting a job and reaching higher education (see panel, right).
The survey, commissioned by the Education and Employers Taskforce, found that former state comprehensive pupils were slightly more likely to have completed work experience - 90 per cent of those asked had done so, compared with 85 per cent of former independent-sector pupils.
But that did not mean it was as effective. Asked about the quality of work experience, James Dawkins, an educational research analyst for the Taskforce, said written comments made by the 987 young people who took part in the poll reflected the gap between the sectors.
"There is a lot more discontent with work-experience placements in state schools," he said. "The general tendency from pupils at independent schools is that they are securing the work experience they want to go on and they are a lot more happy and content with it."
Separate research conducted by the Taskforce and Warwick University sought to shed light on how six high-performing independent schools achieved this success.
Connections through parents and old boys or girls were important. "It's such a good network through the old boys' association and the parents," said a boys' school teacher. "We have sent out a blanket request and people will say, 'Yes, I'm happy to help'."
A girls' school teacher told the researchers that pupils might use a contact, perhaps a parental one, to request work experience, and added: "I would say probably it's on the strength of the school that they get it."
A teacher at another boys' school told how one of his governors was a director of an NHS foundation trust running a large London hospital. The connection led to work experience for pupils culminating in them making presentations to the trust board and chief executive.
A second independent girls' school revealed it had direct approaches from employers offering more opportunities than it knew what to do with."They get in touch with you as if you had never heard of an investment bank," a teacher told the researchers. "Well, actually, they're the third investment bank this week!"
The YouGov poll found that former pupils who had completed work experience during sixth-form and key stage 4 did not find it significantly more useful than those who only completed it at sixth form.
But those who only completed work experience between the ages of 14 and 16 found it much less useful. The finding seems to support the recommendation from the Government-commissioned Wolf report that schools' statutory duty to provide work experience at KS4 should be removed.
The Wolf report argued that this would allow schools to concentrate on supplying "genuine work experience" and "long internships" for 16 to 18-year-olds.
The proportion of pupils who found work experience helpful in:
Deciding on a job
Getting a job
Entry to higher education