Experience life as a cog

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Nothing divides parents quite like the first blast of work experience, somewhere between age 14 and GCSEs. Rather than assault local businesses wholesale, the schools adopt the tactics of a scavenger hunt, ordering the more compos mentis parents to find their chicks some mug of an employer to take them on for a week.

The principle, as I understand it, is that modern education is so insulated from normal life that the little bleeders had better get a glimpse of reality before they go any further into the wonderland of public examinations and alluring "uni" brochures.

So the parents look around, blinking, and search for a square hole in which to ram their little pegs. Some take the easy option and just cart them off to their own workplace, where beady little eyes can at last discover just what it is that makes Daddy or Mummy get home in such a filthy temper every night.

Others, fearing this exposure, find a client or a contact in the professional line and tip their offspring into some solicitors' office, accountancy firm or somewhere equally white-collar. Here the kid will spend the week making coffee rather badly and hanging about feeling embarrassed.

This, I suspect, is the sort of experience John Dunford of the Secondary Heads' Association was talking about when he challenged the whole concept the other week, adding "frankly, they might as well be in school".

Another group of parents - among whom I count myself - take a completely different view, and say that rather than chucking them into a white-collar limbo in the forlorn hope that they will end up white-collar people, it makes more sense to give them actual work experience: which means experience of being needed, being a pair of willing hands, under orders and exhausted at the end of the day.

In this concept, it does not matter how menial the work is: the only essential thing is that it should be part of a job that needs to be done, and that the child should get the glow of grubby, weary satisfaction that comes of contributing, for real.

So you find somewhere they can dig holes, or cut hedges, or move piles of bricks from one side of a site to the other. We managed to tip our son into the local boatyard, whence he returned each evening filthy as a miner, with calloused hands and too weary to say anything except "I - gaaah - cleaned out the glue store today".

His sister, a year later, served her time in a flower shop, with freezing hands and countless prickles, and to this day cannot look a gerbera in the face.

So I am not entirely with Mr Dunford when he speaks contemptuously of children "doing nothing more challenging than making cups of tea or counting the stock".

If tea is needed, and making it frees up another employee; if the stock needs counting, then let them do it. Our hope was that they would learn not some "challenging" skill - time enough for that later - but a vital lesson on the very nature of work itself.

In a week away from the pupil-centred, achievement-ticking,self-consciously character-building world of education, they would learn that most of the world's work needs to be done for its own sake, not yours. They would learn that much of it is menial and quite boring, but still important; that you have to turn up on time and civilly obey orders, however tedious; that you are, at least for part of your working life, going to be just a cog in a machine.

If this fills them with horror, then let them work like stink and get into a job they find interesting. But conversely, it might reassure them.

There's nothing like work to soothe the neuroses of adolescence.

Mine were calmed by long dull stints selling ice-cream and scrubbing out the freezers at the end of the day; by laying tables in a restaurant, unloading an industrial dishwasher, regularly confusing people's orders for egg mayonnaise with no mayonnaise and being shouted at by an Irish cook.

The only really pointless work experience internships are the ones where you aren't needed, have nothing to do and feel useless. And those, I suspect, are more likely to happen in the white-collar offices, the prestige jobs, the apparently groovy media placements which middle-class parents boast about. Give me the glue store and the gerberas, any day.

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