Joanna Williams questions the wisdom of our approach to work experience

4th August 2000 at 01:00
As a teacher, I am used to coming home from work tired. I am not used to coming home and nursing the blisters on my feet. By midday one day at the end of last term I had been to a bakery, a leisure centre, a timber yard, an estate agent's, two supermarkets and a dentist's. Not, alas, a busy shopping trip, but a morning spent visiting members of my form out on work experience.

It was a welcome relief to have a day away from the classroom and it was wonderful to see pupils in non-school situations. With few exceptions, they had risen to the occasion and nearly everyone commented on their maturity and willingness. At school, my form are the bane of my life. I seem to spend half my waking hours trying to solve the problems they have caused. To spend a day basking in their reflected glory was a pleasant surprise.

I began to wonder why pupils who get along so badly at school do so well out in the world of work. The school I work at is a high school - children who pass the 11-plus go elsewhere. For many of my pupils just putting on their uniform to come to school is seen as a sign of their failure. As teachers come under pressure to improve exam results for league table point-scoring, this pressure is in turn passed on to pupils.

Lessons are based around predicted grades, how to improve exam performance, how to re-write that piece of coursework, again, for a fractionally better mark. Unsurprisingly, many pupils cannot (indeed, do not want to) handle this pressure. Then the problems with behaviour and attendance start.

On work experience, the pressure is off. The slate is clean and the experience of failure vanishes. Pupils are treated like adults, given responsibility and tasks they can complete. For many there is more satisfaction to be gained from physically being able to see a job well done rather than struggling with pen and paper to await feedback days, or even weeks, later.

Yet, just as pupils are individuals, work experience placements are unique. The best provide a wide range of stimulating tasks and fully involve pupils in all aspects of the business. The worst how a floor to be swept or a pile of documents to be photocopied; tasks repeated daily for the next two weeks. For some bright sparks, this tedium has the only advantage of making them determined to do well so they don't end up in a similar dead-end job.

Schools need to radically re-think the role of work experience. Co-ordinators must start by asking themselves what they consider to be the point. At the moment, it is most often assigned to the pastoral teams or the PSHE department to organise. Presumably then the aims are in terms of citizenship skills, learning about the community or working with others. Commendable this may be, but shouldn't subject teachers also be seeking to make gains over this fortnight? Some pupils I visited were using literacy and numeracy skills on work experience yet would be reluctant to engage with such challenges at school.

My school, like many others, tacks work experience on to the end of the school year. It is viewed by staff as a good way of occupying pupils when there is little else to do with them, and of avoiding end-of-term rowdiness. For some pupils the gains in confidence and maturity are too good to be wasted on the summer holidays. If schools are to reap the rewards, work experience needs to be properly integrated within the curriculum and within the school year.

Schools then need to ask whether work experience is appropriate for all pupils and whether all placements are suitable. We have more than 170 pupils out on placements. Roughly half of these are worthwhile - the remainder involve bright kids in pointless child labour, doing large amounts of cleaning and shelf-stacking.

Perhaps everyone would gain if quality placements were targeted at pupils who really need such an experience by subject tutors who know the strengths and weaknesses of each pupil. The work experience period could then be moved from its role of occupying bored kids at the end of the school year to helping some disaffected youngsters see that there is a real point to their education.

Joanna Williams is an English teacher in Herne Bay, Kent

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