Work experience strikes fear into the hearts of employers as well as pupils. But it doesn't have to be that way, says Steven Hastings.Photocopying, filing and making the tea. Pupils on work experience are often trusted only with the simplest, and dullest, of tasks. It seems that gawky teenagers don't always fill employers with confidence.
"You can't just dump unskilled 15-year-olds straight into the workplace," says Steve Dumbell, chairman of Knowsley Enterprise Academy, a development agency in Merseyside. "It isn't fair to the pupils, and it certainly isn't fair to the company that takes them on."
The academy is piloting a week-long programme designed to give Knowsley's youngsters a proper understanding of the world of business - before they go out on work experience. In many ways, it's a model of the kind of employment-based learning that diplomas promise to embrace.
Pupils attend workshops on body language, communication and workplace etiquette. A day at the local Jaguar factory teaches them the basics of health and safety. The rest of the week is devoted to an enterprise project, with pupils developing a business idea, and trying to sell it for a profit. Along the way, they learn about risk-assessment, marketing and negotiation.
"It all takes place out of school, and they have to work with new people and give presentations to strangers," says Diane Bainbridge, business and enterprise director at All Saints High School, whose Year 9 pupils were part of the pilot. "It's nerve-wracking, but it does build confidence. When our pupils take up their first work experience placement, they will be more comfortable and know how to conduct themselves."
It's not just individuals and employers who benefit. In the long run, workplace savvy pupils should also make life easier for schools. Knowsley has 1,000 commercial or industrial businesses, the majority of them with fewer than 10 employees. With about 2,000 pupils seeking work experience placements in the area each year, it's a struggle to fix everyone up. And the new diplomas will only make the scramble more frenetic.
"Part of the problem is that employers think that having someone on work experience will be a burden," says Diane. "But if they see young people turning up well-prepared and ready to make a contribution, they might begin to think differently."