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Virtual jobs replace reality

Safety fears have prompted work experience via computer as placements become harder to find. Michael Shaw reports

Pupils are being offered "virtual work experience" instead of real placements with businesses because of concerns about their safety.

The approach is being led by the Nottinghamshire Education and Business Alliance, which is sending schools in the county CD-Roms containing video-clips and interactive activities based on visits to different companies.

Carol Knock, manager of the project, said she expected the length of traditional work experience placements would shrink and pupils would spend more time on virtual projects using computers at school.

Child protection legislation and health and safety issues were making it increasingly difficult to provide under-16s with the most interesting placements in businesses, she said. Companies must now be risk-assessed before a pupil can take part in work experience if it is arranged by a school or a local authority.

"Some of the most exciting work experience options are no longer available to under-16s, especially in areas like engineering," Mrs Knock said. "There are also restrictions on where they can go and what they can see because of data protection laws and the heightened security following September 11.

"One of the things that used to excite youngsters the most was working in airports, where there are lots of vocational opportunities, but now that can be difficult."

Mrs Knock said that some companies, such as those involved in the media, found it increasingly hard to meet the high demand from teenagers for placements.

However, she stressed that she believed that traditional work experience was irreplaceable, even if visits were shorter than in the past. The alliance has recently established a database for schools of more than 5,000 opportunities in Nottinghamshire and helps provide placements for around 12,000 young people each year.

The pressures against work experience are emerging at a time when the Government wants more schools to organise placements.

Work-related learning will become statutory from next year for pupils at key stage 4.

Richard Wilson, business policy executive for the Institute of Directors said there was a risk of a conflict, between the Government's aims and the restrictions on letting under-16s into the work-place. He said it was understandable that local authorities felt cautious about child protection issues.

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