The issue: Work experience

18th February 2011 at 00:00
Know-how can count for more than good qualifications in the workplace. What can schools do to help students get ahead?

Qualifications are not enough - they need to be backed up by workplace experience. That is the verdict of research company High Fliers, following its review of young people's employment chances. With the prospect of tuition fees and grant cuts putting many off higher education, the news will be disheartening for students.

But what can schools do to help them acquire the experience they need? Should schools be looking to beef up their work-experience programmes? After all, a week photocopying or making tea is unlikely to give pupils an edge in the job market.

"Young people's first contact with the workplace should be inspirational," says Sarah Gibb, of Business in the Community (BITC), although she admits that this isn't always the case. BITC is one of the driving forces behind Work Inspiration, a campaign to encourage businesses to offer more challenging and rewarding placements. But schools also have a role to play, says Ms Gibb, particularly in preparing students ahead of their placements. "Some students turn up lacking even the basic vocabulary of the workplace," she says.

Matt Hall, a teacher at Ashby School, in Leicestershire, agrees that preparation is key. Work experience is a serious business at Ashby - the school employs two full-time co-ordinators to secure placements for more than 500 pupils. "An enormous amount of time and effort goes into matching the right student to the right job," says Mr Hall. "It makes all the difference."

At its best, he says, work experience can be life-changing. "One boy who was difficult and demotivated went to an engineering company. Suddenly he knew what he wanted to do, and since then he has not been a moment's trouble."

As for improving pupils' "employability" - results can be instant. Every year about 20 pupils from Ashby are offered paid work or an apprenticeship in the business where they have had their placement.

But for young people looking for a graduate career, it is a more complicated picture. The reality is that a week's work experience in Year 10 carries little weight on leaving university, six years down the line. To stand out, students need something substantial on their CV - something striking. The experience open to sixth form pupils at Haverstock School, in Camden, north London, fits the bill perfectly.

Haverstock is one of 120 schools involved in Career Academies, a scheme that aims to raise aspirations in 16 to 19-year-olds. Students are offered a six-week internship during the summer between Years 12 and 13. "It is a real job and they get paid for it," says teacher Kay Ali. "More importantly, they are given responsibility. Two students went to NBC Universal and had direct input into a pound;10-million marketing strategy for a new film."

Ms Ali says the biggest problem facing former interns is convincing employers and universities their CVs are real. "It seems too good to be true," says Ms Ali. "But they leave the internship with confidence and contacts. At their first interview, you know they are going to stand out.",


- Go for a two-week rather than one-week programme. It takes a few days to settle in.

- Liaise with employers to ensure pupils are given appropriate, meaningful tasks.

- Preparation and follow-up work are vital.

- Encourage pupils to stay in touch with employers when their placement ends.

- Schools should liaise with businesses during the year, not just during work experience.

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