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Work can be horrible

Helene Witcher reminds us that building links between schools and the business world can be a trickier process than recent ministerial urgings might suggest

Robbie has just left school. He has had a part-time job as a waiter in our local swanky hotel and has been saving for his summer holiday.

He was promised Pounds 2.50 an hour. After many hours of silver serving and clearing tables his pay packet showed Pounds 2 an hour, with zilch for the many evenings he agreed to stay on late to clear up. With nothing on paper and no one to corroborate the original offer, he wrestled with his rage and concluded there was no safe way to complain without being sacked. The manager knows there is a pool of teenagers keen to fill his shoes if he makes trouble. At 17, he has learned a disturbing first lesson about employment.

The new imperative that schools be enterprising and improve their links with employers brings Robbie's experience into sharp focus. It instills a sense of caution, however worthy the principle of good business links.

Ironically, experiences like Robbie's can be motivating for some youngsters.

Laura did six months' evening and weekend work in a different hotel. The working conditions and low pay - and sexual harassment from male customers old enough to know better - were enough to persuade her to spend other evenings and weekends swotting to get into university.

"It's okay for a holiday job," she told her mum, "but imagine having no choice about doing that kind of work."

The other unanticipated benefit was that she developed a deeper respect for the people who do the job permanently.

When Government ministers urge schools to recognise the benefits of improved links with employers, I suspect that they do not have this kind of experience in mind. They reinforce, simply, the value of linking what takes place in school to the bump and grind of the adult world.

Such national interest is important, particularly for pupils who leave school at 16 and are very vulnerable in the workplace. Straddling the uneasy gap between adolescence and adulthood, they are relatively immature, inexperienced and minimally qualified.

What messages about social and moral values do we wish young people to take into and expect from the workplace? They are surely those which schools have been endeavouring to teach all along: good time keeping, preparedness to learn about and respond to the demands presented, respect for oneself and others and, importantly, refraining from the exploitation or abuse of others. These values make up a rich educational package for any youngster leaving school.

But how can schools prepare young people to respond if the values they encounter in the workplace are not those they have been taught to respect? Schools already monitor and approve work experience placements. Although concerned principally that pupils are well placed to benefit in terms of their individual needs, they are sensitive also to the social and moral contexts of placements.

For example, they may feel a degree of obligation regarding the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regulations, and some may be alert to the more subtle forms of discrimination or bad practice. But scrutinising such details might take the lid off a can of worms and injure the relationship between schools and the local employers with whom they seek work placements.

The HSE guideline is already sprawling across the desks of local authorities and schools' work experience co-ordinators. It is unequivocal in expecting employers to conduct risk assessments which take account of potential additional risks to those under 16, and to communicate the outcome of such assessments to parents. It also encourages employers to use schools to communicate that information.

While the procedures are standard practice for large employers like BP, which have a long-standing record of good liaison with schools, they also confront school work experience co-ordinators with a dilemma. Is it their role to insist upon evidence of risk assessment outcomes before placing pupils? Or should they trust the school's local knowledge and experience in permitting youngsters out of school?

Legal advice indicates that local authorities and schools have a "duty of care" to make informed decisions about placements. Where schools are dependent on a small number of employers offering placements, school co-ordinators have an unenviable task.

If Robbie's hotel job was a work experience placement and he suffered third degree burns from a kitchen accident during a task he was ill-prepared to do safely, his mum would be banging on the headteacher's door for an explanation. If Laura was sexually abused by a drunken guest during a hotel work placement, to whom are her parents most likely to turn for explanation, support or redress? Parents understandably expect that school work experience placements will be safe and soundly vetted.

Such examples are extreme and hopefully rare. But they illustrate the complex dilemmas posed by the innocently cheery invocations of ministers that schools get cracking on building workplace links.

Douglas Osler, senior chief inspector of schools, suggested that schools recognise and value the regular jobs some pupils have out of school hours. On the face of it, this makes a lot of sense. Many pupils manage a gruelling but rewarding schedule of newspaper rounds, hotel and shop work alongside their studies. The experience matures them, and it is important that schools value such effort.

But in a few cases that first wage fuels the development of pupils' drinking or drug habits and, paradoxically, their increasing alienation from the social and moral values of the school.

The education process is not simply to do with reinforcing workplace patterns of timekeeping and task achievement. It represents a total experience which should sustain the moral and social values which remain an integral part of education, at least while they are still at school. It is a sign of the times, too, that few trade union voices are heard.

Laura moved on from part-time work at the hotel to part-time work at a national supermarket. Her induction period included appropriately detailed health and safety training. Even as a temporary part-timer, she was introduced to the management and benefits scheme of the company and urged to join the appropriate trade union. She came home radiant.

Although old lags might see this as a smart management technique to get her on board the company, she quite obviously felt a growing confidence. She knew what was expected of her, that she would be properly rewarded for what she did and that she had a route to seek help if she felt things were going wrong.

Robbie left school last month. He is not doing well academically, not least because his parents separated recently. He is worried about his younger brother and about himself and his future. He is self-consciously alert to employers who publicly bemoan the existence of underskilled layabouts who will not apply for jobs or who perform badly.

Yet his first attempt to earn an honest crust, to enter into a contract offering his enthusiastic labour for an agreed wage, has left him cruelly disillusioned.

His anger at the injustice should be taken seriously. He has learned about more than customer care and silver service. He has learned about exploitation. One can only surmise the impact that might have on his attitudes to future employers and to work.

It is important that someone in school knows about this experience and has the skill to help youngsters like Robbie unpack it all. If he reaches, eventually, a position of responsibility for managing others, we can only hope he does not base his decisions about their lives on the seedy principles he met in his first job.

Robbie's story is a salutary one for schools and employers. The new initiative is splendid, but only if it allocates dedicated time for their collective thinking and planning. What do they, collectively, hope will happen to Robbie? What will they do to support his next steps?

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