Two weeks spent photocopying and making tea, or a fortnight that will change your life. Work experience can be either of these, and anything in between. It has become a traditional part of the curriculum, a taste of the world of work that is meant to help pupils decide on the kind of job they want and ease their move from education to employment. Work experience should involve a range of tasks and duties similar to those of an employee, "but with the emphasis on the learning aspects of the experience". That's the DfES definition, but in practice it doesn't always live up to the ideal. Where it is well established, it provides a useful complement to schoolwork, and is rewarding for student and employer alike. But a minority of schools struggle to find suitable placements, and fail to prepare or debrief pupils properly. Pupils return disillusioned by what, for many, is their first encounter with the world of work. Some offer pupils no work experience at all. But that is about to change.
A new experience
From September this year, work experience will assume a new importance, when schools will face a statutory requirement to provide "work-related learning" for all pupils at key stage 4 (it is already statutory in Scotland). This widened definition is used by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority to cover three distinct activities: learning through work (for example, placements in the community, work experience, part-time jobs, school enterprise activities, vocational contexts in subject learning); learning about work (vocational courses and careers education); and learning for work (developing employer-valued key skills and career management skills).
In this way, students are supposed to develop their employability and prepare themselves for the "increasingly complex and changing world of work". They should be able to make more informed decisions about possible career paths and improve their motivation by relating schoolwork to real jobs.
What will these changes mean for schools?
"Many schools are concerned about the quality of work experience offered to young people," John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, told a conference last year. In some cases, he said, "an extra pair of hands for a fortnight is seen as either marginally useful or a bit of a nuisance".
This image of work placements persists, fuelled by the past experience of many schoolchildren. Several agencies have a role to play in helping schools provide work experience - education business partnerships, the careers service, local education authorities, youth agencies such as Connexions, and local learning and skills councils, which have a strategic role in co-ordinating programmes and distributing much of the funding for work-related learning.
To remedy this patchy provision, the QCA has devised a nine-point framework to help schools relate pupils' work-related learning to the curriculum. In preparation for the changes, Ofsted suggests a senior manager be appointed with overall responsibility for student placement and school staff training. The school should carry out an audit of provision, include work-related learning in its development plan, and explore collaborations with colleges and employers. All of which should lead to "a stronger, more dynamic relationship between schools and local businesses".
The DfES funds work experience to the tune of about pound;35 million a year. This is shared out regionally on a per capita basis - it works out at between pound;17 and pound;23 per head - and arrives at schools and work experience providers via the local learning and skills councils and education business link organisations. This doesn't cover the full cost, says Paul Poulter, director of the Trident Trust, the UK's leading provider of work experience placements. He says the most generous sponsors are employers, who give millions of pounds' worth of support in kind every year.
What's work experience like now?
A 2001 study for the DfES by the Institute for Employment Studies, Pre-16 Work Experience Practice in England: an evaluation, the biggest research project into the subject in recent years, found that 70 per cent of under-16s went on work experience each year, usually for two weeks towards the end of the summer term. This "bunching" caused a "peak time" for placements, and shortages in some areas.
Of the 100 schools that took part in a survey of work experience in Scotland early in 2003, one in three reported difficulties in finding placements, particularly in rural areas with long distances between employers and little variety of industry. Around 70 per cent of pupils found the placement they wanted, with retail and leisure growing in popularity at the expense of banks, offices and healthcare. But pupils on retail and leisure placements were most dissatisfied; those who had a computer and did an actual job (43 per cent) as opposed to helping someone else do theirs (50 per cent), were happiest.
Schools spent an average of seven hours in preparing pupils - mostly with health and safety - and one in six failed to discuss the learning objectives beforehand. Employers were rarely involved in preparation. Two hours was the average time spent debriefing pupils (6 per cent offered none) and the experience was rarely followed up in schoolwork.
While just over a half of pupils said it made them more interested in doing well at school, only a fifth considered it relevant to their schoolwork.
For example, 60 per cent used maths while on placement, but only 11 per cent referred to it in subsequent lessons. Follow-up of IT skills was much higher. "In many respects, things have stood still or gone backwards in terms of links with the curriculum," says Professor Andy Miller of Middlesex University, an adviser on work-related learning to the DfES.
"In the 1990s and more recently, there has been less and less time for preparation and debriefing," he says. "A lot of teachers are not that good at debriefing - getting students to talk rather than giving them things to write." He gives the example of a school in Wigan in the early 1990s that had a two-day festival of poetry, art, drama and dance inspired by students' work experiences. "Some powerful things came out of that. That's the kind of thing that ought to be going on. But some headteachers see work experience as taking kids out of lessons when they could be working hard for GCSEs." LEAs, education business partnerships and others are vying for contracts to provide work experience (just under half of all placements are organised by outside agencies), but teachers need to be consulted more, he says.
Making it work
For schools getting to grips with the demands of the new legislation, there are plenty of examples of good practice to follow. The Trident Trust was set up in 1971 because of concerns that school-leavers lacked skills for the job market.
The trust's solution was to establish Skills For Life, an out-of-school programme of work experience, community involvement and personal challenge.
About 10,000 children receive a Skills for Life gold award each year, but the work experience element has proved the most popular, and the trust organises around 130,000 placements a year through its links with the 120,000 businesses on its books.
The trust, which has 60 regional offices, carries out all health and safety checks, deals with legal issues, ensures child protection and data protection requirements are met, and draws up a job description with a realistic assessment of the kind of work a student might expect to do on placement.
Paul Poulter says good planning and feedback are crucial. "The more you put into it, the more you get out. Schools with well-organised briefing sessions and curriculum review get tremendous value. Others get disappointment on both sides." Making work-related learning statutory in England and Wales will raise its status, he says, and force those schools that see it as an "adjunct" to incorporate it properly.
How do parents fit in?
They have a greater role to play here than in most other areas of the secondary curriculum - for instance, they can be an important source of contacts for placements. They should be informed and consulted on the kind of work their children are likely to be performing, how they can support them in preparing for it, coping with it once it starts and learning from it afterwards. They should be told about practical considerations that are likely to be different from the school day - such as the timetable and transport to and from work - and they should be given contacts at the school and place of work.
Jobs for the boys
Research has shown a continuing gender imbalance between boys' and girls'
work experience preferences. In the Scottish study, almost 40 per cent of girls were placed in primary or nursery education (against 7 per cent of boys), while 10 times more boys than girls had placements with the armed forces or police.
A third of schools said employers reinforced these stereotypes, and 80 per cent of teachers actively encouraged pupils to consider non-traditional placements. Instead, the greatest resistance seemed to come from pupils; they opted for stereotypical occupations, and schools were concerned with matching pupils' preferences.
About half the students who stay on until sixth form will have a further period of work experience, particularly if they are studying for a GNVQ.
There is no lower age limit, although pupils below key stage 4 will not usually be covered by insurance. But work experience for younger pupils is permitted as long as it is not too hands-on. Carefully arranged work, shadowing or observation can be a vivid illustration of certain elements of earlier stages of the curriculum.
A pilot project in Manchester last year in which 50 Year 6 pupils helped out at a city centre hotel is being expanded to 10 primary schools.
What's in it for business?
Until the 1990s, work experience was one of the main ways in which schools and business interacted, usually in a fairly ad hoc fashion. The growth of education business partnerships in the 1990s strengthened links, and work experience has remained one of the most important points of contact. EBPs now organise around 325,000 placements for pre-16 students each year.
"Gone are the days when students would spend all day photocopying," says Charmian Roberts, chair of the national EBP network work experience support group. "Employers are very positive; they want to know how they can help education." She says increased understanding between the two sectors is essential. She encourages teachers, especially those with little experience of work outside the school environment, to go on in-company placements to gain first-hand knowledge of the workplace and to help them brief pupils more effectively.
Insurance and health and safety concerns still prevent some businesses from offering placements. While the nature of work in some industries, specifically those involving heavy manual labour or dangerous substances, effectively precludes children, most of these anxieties are misplaced. The Association of British Insurers advises that pupils on work placements are usually covered by employers' liability as long as the insurance company is notified. Once these practicalities have been dealt with, says Heidi Delaloye of the Trident Trust, employers have a lot to gain from work placements. "There's the recruitment element, it's like a two-week long interview. For some students it's such an important experience that it stays with them a long time and it can be their first port of call when they start looking for a job." Occasionally, it can have a dramatic effect.
A Spanish-speaking student on work experience with a communications company in London put his language skills to good use when a potential customer telephoned from Madrid. The caller was impressed by his service, and later signed a contract for pound;1 million.
But, Ms Delaloye warns, a big part of the preparation is managing expectation among pupils and their parents. One girl was disappointed when her work placement with a vet finished without her actually having operated on any animals. "There are exciting elements to jobs - and mundane elements. It's important to prepare students and discuss what they will be doing so they get an accurate picture."
Extended work experience
In the three years since schools were given the option of disapplying students from two subjects in the key stage 4 curriculum, and vocational GCSEs were introduced, one variety of vocational education has already come of age. Extended work experience - more structured placements of between half a day and two days a week lasting from several weeks to two years - is becoming a credible alternative for practically minded pupils.
Such placements can be useful in re-engaging unmotivated students or those at risk of exclusion. But they are equally valid for students pursuing courses with a strong vocational element. Longer term placements must include a taught component, be carefully matched to the student's career aspirations, and be followed up by and closely related to work done in school.
There are also more stringent health and safety and child protection requirements to be considered. A school's "duty of care" extends to any such placements, so a full risk assessment must be carried out beforehand and only adults who have passed police checks should be allowed to supervise key stage 4 students. Attendance must be recorded, arrangements made for break and lunchtimes, and parents should be consulted.
In June 2001, Ofsted reported that while practice varied widely, there was an overall positive outcome from extended work experience placements.
Attendance improved for around half the students, and a third did better than predicted in their GCSEs. Perhaps this is a vision of the future of work experience. But as schools gear up to provide work-related learning for all students, they should not, the QCA warns, see it as "a panacea for tackling disaffection".