Work experience: two words that don't go together

19th March 2010 at 00:00

We have just completed the most pointless part of the school year. Yes, you have guessed it. Work experience.

It generates huge amounts of work - for schools - without, normally, any noticable effect on the pupils, unless of course it is aversion therapy. We spend ages finding places where the children can go, we trail round town on visits so we can watch them watching others - and then what? We send our children to dog kennels where they spend a week sweeping up poo. Or somewhere else to do something equally thrilling. It seems a time-consuming way of showing them that menial jobs are, well, menial.

What actually happens on work experience? There seems to be a huge amount of sweeping involved. Hairdressers, leisure centres, nurseries, shops, garages. I am surprised we haven't been required to introduce sweeping to the curriculum. It is not well received. If there has been no work in a family for a generation it is hardly likely to break the mould when the task Tyler is given is regarded as demeaning. Better to stay at home than sweep all day.

There are more important things that we need to do in school. As it is, we send out the inadequate into an incomplete version of the world of work and then watch them drift back to school when they cannot cope.

I cannot see that the sort of experiences they have will really inspire them to discover a career path which leads inevitably to a thrusting job in accounts. And is that what teaching should be about anyway? Preparing children for work? Yet we go along with it and continue to feed the myth that the world of business and commerce is somehow superior to ours. We must serve their needs. At these moments, though, I am always reminded of my favourite proverb: if work is so good for us why didn't the rich keep it all to themselves?

Like all of us I love those occasions where Darren goes off to work with his dad, who then sends him back to school after two days because he is a pain in the butt and won't do anything. And how long have we been telling you that? But it would have been a lot simpler if his dad had come into school and spent time with us, rather than the other way round.

Of course there are kids who are transformed by the experience. It can bring lessons and ambitions into a sharp focus. Those following a vocational pathway may indeed find out things that will help them. But the idea that everyone will inevitably recognise the sanctity of work is wrong. For many of our children it is a complete waste of time. One size does not fit all.

As far as I am concerned, school is a child's haven from absurdity where they can grow and develop at their own pace. Is work so sacred that they should miss school in order to watch Tracey in accounts forward jolly emails to her chums featuring penguins on motorcycles? I can't see it, I'm afraid.

You might say there are those who should go out to work permanently at 14 and whose world view would be immeasurably improved by a close encounter with the boss's torque wrench. But equally there are lots of others who are not ready and for whom work experience is a meaningless ordeal.

My sympathies lie entirely with them. Work will embrace them all too soon. They should be allowed to be children.

Does business want our children anyway? Most of them are merely an inconvenience. What do you do with a clumsy boy wearing his dad's old suit? My son spent two weeks leaning against the photocopier in local solicitors, irradiating his kidneys. What else could he do? A bit of conveyancing? No, just watch the office staff filing papers and nails and, like them, watch the clock.

It is much the same wherever you go. If you follow your dream of plumbing you will spend most of your time sitting in a van eating sausage sandwiches. Is this how you will find your vocation?

Eli's placement was in one of our leading restaurants. Lunchtime diners would have been horrified to learn that their expensive lunch was prepared in part by Eli, under whose fingernails new life forms were always evolving.

When I went to see him I expected that he would have been sweeping. I was wrong. "When chef goes out for a fag I slaps the fish under the grill until it goes brown." He left school to become a bricklayer's mate.

With health and safety restrictions, such quality experiences are no longer available. I remember going to see Jamie, who was placed with a fishing bait supplier. He was morosely working his way through a bucket of worms, sorting the living from the dead. As an image of futility it remains the most compelling.

Geoff Brookes Deputy head, Cefn Hengoed School, Swansea.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today