Ain't nothing like the real thing
Like many of their pupils, some teachers have a somewhat jaundiced view of the police. Michael Pearman certainly did. Then he got a chance to work with the drugs squad: "I had this idea that the police were a bad lot. Until I went on this placement, I didn't realise they actually work their socks off. It was absolutely enthralling, and I can now give a much more realistic picture of what it's all about."
As careers co-ordinator at Nunnery Wood High School in Worcester, he's just one of a growing number of teachers and careers officers whose perceptions of the world of work are being radically changed by the opportunity to get first-hand experience of the workplace. Teacher placements are proving increasingly popular. The Teacher Placement Service run by Understanding British Industry (UBI) now offers some 36,000 placements every year, across the whole spectrum of employment. Since the scheme began nearly six years ago, it has provided 160,000 placements for primary and secondary teachers.
The experience has often been a sobering one for them. Patterns of work have changed dramatically in recent years. There are fewer jobs for unskilled workers; a growth in service jobs at the expense of manufacturing ones; a higher proportion of part-time jobs; and a rise in the number of women at work. As for technology, that's changing by the week, if not the day. "But schools haven't yet adjusted to this reality, and teachers haven't yet caught up - for instance with the fact that banks now only take graduates," says Peter Nuttall, a former manager of a North London placement scheme. "By getting them out there, we can help them adapt what they're doing with careers education and guidance."
The UBI philosophy centres on the idea that all teachers are careers advisers, that young people pick up messages about careers from many different members of staff, both in and outside the classroom. So it's not just careers teachers and co-ordinators who are going out on placements, but also form tutors, school managers, and individual subject teachers.
Nor are they solely secondary teachers. A UBI breakdown of placements by subject area in 199394 shows, surprisingly, that primary teachers took up around a third of them. At secondary level placements were particularly popular among business studies, economics, science and technology teachers, and least popular among drama, home economics, music and RE teachers.
Perhaps because of their academic background, teachers tend to be specially ignorant about the world of work-based training. "Industry is still often seen as a matter of dark satanic mills," says Roger Perks, teacher placement organiser in Weston-super-Mare in Avon. "But that element has now almost completely disappeared."
Under his Work Base 95 scheme, co-ordinated through the Weston Education Business Partnership, more than 100 careers co-ordinators and advisers have been catching up with reality by spending time with local training providers in the area.
A similar scheme has operated in Hereford and Worcester, where placement organiser Val Monaghan devised a programme that has enabled teachers to become better informed about National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), which many of their former pupils are now going for.
Wendy Soilleux, the teacher responsible for careers guidance at St Mary's High School, Hereford, was one who took part in the programme, spending three days with Wye Valley Training in Hereford, and visiting places where ex-pupils were working.
"It opened up a whole world I had no experience of," she recalls. "These were mostly young people who didn't achieve at school, who found the rules and regulations irksome. It was marvellous to see how much they could do. Now that I understand so much more about what's involved, I feel I can give my pupils much better advice."
In fact she found the experience so valuable that she got agreement for 16 tutors of Years 9-11 at St Mary's to spend one of their Teacher Education Days in similar fashion, talking to trainers and trainees in a range of workplaces around the city as part of their in-service training.
"At the de-briefing the enthusiasm was electrifying," she says. "It had a very positive effect: people felt they would be able to answer pupils' questions better, and give a much more balanced view of the opportunities available to them."
Careers teachers are of course sometimes hampered in their attempts to give balanced, impartial advice by the attitude of head- teachers - especially in the more academic schools - who see work-based training as a threats to their sixth-form numbers, and are reluctant to release teachers for such visits.
Michael Pearman, who has no such problem at Nunnery Wood (the school sent 20 tutors out on the NVQ scheme), points out the consequences: "Children suffer because they're getting the wrong advice, and starting to go down routes they really can't cope with," he says. "A mistake can mean losing a whole year. "
Children with special needs have to be advised with particular care. A UBI scheme in North London offers placements for pupils as well as teachers. Eight pupils from Durrants Special School in Enfield, for instance, recently did some work experience at the Welcome Break Service Station on the M25.
The placement gave the teachers a chance to see how their pupils coped outside school, as well as the effect on the parents who visited them. "Seeing the children dressed up in uniform had an amazing impact," Peter Nuttall says. "For the first time they could see their child might be able to hold down a job."
The placement scheme is now spreading into Europe. A number of pilot placements have taken teachers to Ireland, Italy and Romania, where they spend two weeks in a school and one with a company.
Further information from UBI, Sun Alliance House, New Inn Hall Street, Oxford OX1 2BR. Tel: 01865 722585