Throughout his undergraduate degree in biomedical science, Neil Gilbride had flirted with the idea of working in education.
Three days after his final exam, he walked into a job as a parent-support worker.
“This was during the financial crisis,” Gilbride says. “But I could say I’d been working with children with special educational needs – and with their families – for about five years. And I could say that with legitimacy.”
He is now a lecturer in education at the University of Gloucestershire.
Since the age of 16, Gilbride had been volunteering at a play scheme for children with profound disabilities. Later, at university, he continued volunteering within the field of inclusion.
“By the time I was 19, I could say I’d been working in special educational needs for three years,” he says. “I’d line-managed. I’d helped develop other people in the team. You can’t get that from work experience.”
This week, the Department for Education announced that it would provide £5 million to create 20 "careers hubs" across the country, linking schools and colleges with local universities and employers.
Secondary schools will be expected to provide pupils with at least one “meaningful interaction” with businesses each year. The DfE will also allocate £2 million to pilot ways of increasing awareness among primary-school children of the range of careers available to them.
Meanwhile, research conducted by the Careers and Enterprise Company shows that only 54.5 per cent of schools have given pupils meaningful experience in the workplace by the end of Year 11.
Recent figures also show that the number of schoolchildren with part-time jobs has fallen by a fifth in the last five years, because of pressure to perform well at school.
But many in education are questioning whether traditional interactions with businesses – such as work experience – are in fact the best way to provide pupils with the skills and experience that employers are looking for.
In fact, youth-volunteering charity V-Inspired is arguing that pupils might be better-served by undertaking a sustained period of social-action work.
“We put a high value on cognitive skills and intellectual achievement,” says Vidal Kumar, senior research and policy manager at V-Inspired. “But there’s also a different set of skills – non-cognitive skills, or character skills.
“In work experience, the emphasis is on functional skills, related to the actual job – for example, learning to operate a till. Whereas some of the key outcomes that volunteering supports are around emotional skills: how people respond to setbacks, how they can work with other people, how they cope with difficult situations.
“Employers increasingly recognise the value of these social and psychological and emotional skills.”
And, he adds, research has pointed to an explicit link between these non-cognitive skills and higher earnings in the workplace.
'Skills that robots don't have'
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, agrees. The constant refinement of artificial intelligence, he says, is likely to mean that the job market will place increasing value on non-cognitive skills.
“If human beings are going to continue to have fulfilling lives, they’ll need to have skills that robots don’t have,” he says. “Empathy. Ability to work in a team. Eye contact. Volunteering gives you the skills to do that, in a way that some of the more menial work-experience jobs don’t do.”
Gilbride insists that many of the skills he learned from his years of volunteering – the skills that enabled him to walk straight into a job after university – would not have been available to a student in a part-time job.
“There was no other way I could have acquired that experience, other than by not going to university,” he says. “And, in a formal setting, it would take you much longer to jump through those hoops.”
This is echoed by Tristram Hooley, director of research at the Careers and Enterprise Company. Fundraising for a cause for which one is committed, he says – for example, raising money for a local hospital – can require levels of autonomy and entrepreneurship that one would struggle to acquire during two weeks’ work experience.
Equally, he argues that taking part in team sports – rarely seen as equivalent to work experience – can teach useful skills. For example, captaining a team or coaching younger players can provide valuable leadership experience.
“You’re not necessarily saying, ‘I want to be a football coach,’” he says. “But you learn things that might make you think 'maybe I want to become a teacher'.”
However, Hooley questions whether volunteering can serve as a panacea for all work-experience ills.
For example, he acknowledges that work experience can often reinforce pre-existing social divides. This is particularly true as more and more schools expect pupils to organise their own placements.
“One of the big worries is that there can be a tendency for social reproduction,” Hooley says. “You go and work with your dad’s mate. It raises opportunities for you that are within your existing sphere.”
But, he adds, the voluntary sector is hardly a class-defying utopia of barrier-breaking and handholding egalitarianism. Participants in volunteering schemes are overwhelmingly more likely to be white and affluent than they are to be from a black or ethnic minority background, or from a disadvantaged area. They are also more likely to be female than male.
“So there are likely to be issues with both,” he says. “It’s something for schools to be more mindful of, especially if you get kids to find all their own placements. Then there’s a tendency to social reproduction. That puts responsibility on the school, to try and do something to disrupt that.”
For example, he suggests deliberately sending pupils on placements for jobs that they have not previously considered. Alternatively, a school could ask pupils to use their contacts to organise a work placement, but then insist that no pupil goes on the placement that they themselves organised.
“A lot of these issues are probably about the brokerage of how these placements get allocated,” he says.
'Volunteering isn't a rational, logical thing'
In addition, Hooley points out, some pupils are looking for a career in the voluntary sector. Others might undertake voluntary work in a museum or a gallery. For these pupils, the line between work experience and volunteering is so thin as to be practically invisible.
Indeed, he says, the difference is ultimately negligible in many cases. “I think it’s good for each young person to have sustained experience of work-related learning, whether in a volunteering context or in a work-related context,” he says.
“The difference in effect is not really whether it’s labelled ‘work experience’ or ‘volunteering’. It’s what you’re doing, how long you do it for, how well you’re supported, and whether you’re encouraged to think about what you’ve done.
“If you sit and think about it – and have support from your school – you might learn something from it.”
Gilbride, meanwhile, has other reasons to be wary of suggesting that pupils embrace volunteering as a cut-and-paste replacement for work experience. “If someone doesn’t want to be there,” he says of charity volunteers, “that can be quite toxic in a small group of volunteers.
“If someone’s looking after a child – and they’re feeling that they don’t want to be there – what does that do to the child? Or to the team?”
When Gilbride began volunteering for the play scheme, he says, his duties involved changing the nappies of 16-year-old participants. “This isn’t glamorous work. But you do it because there’s something in you that thinks, I can add value and make a difference.
“Volunteering isn’t a rational, logical thing. Most people volunteer for causes or charities because it speaks to them. There’s a sense of common purpose that can be really powerful. If you conscript someone to do voluntary work, it won’t work. There has to be that connection.”