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'Work experience: Is it really worthwhile?'

Why do we limit students to work experience in subjects that they are studying at college, Ian Pryce asks

Bedford College principal Ian Pryce asks if work experience is worth it

Why do we limit students to work experience in subjects that they are studying at college, Ian Pryce asks

Only an English civil servant could manage to define work experience in a way that includes almost everything except actual work.

The Education and Skills Funding Agency guidance is very clear that work experience is designed to bridge the gap between education and the world of work.

Its purpose is to help inform career choices, provide the opportunity for young people to prove themselves to an employer, and help to instil the attitudes and behaviours expected at work, rather than prove you can actually do something useful.

For students, where it is not the core aim, work experience is a work "taster”, student enterprise or social action projects, but not work itself.

Paid work doesn't count as work experience

At Bedford College about two in three full-time students have part-time work; most commonly between six and 12 hours per week and earning perhaps £60, nearly all of it disposable income.

These students have already eliminated the gap between education and work by doing both simultaneously.

Clearly, these students are employable and they often hold these jobs for a number of years and are often asked to increase their hours. For these students, what more are we trying to instil?

The reason why real work is excluded shows a classic distaste for its grubby vulgarity. Paid work doesn’t count because its main purpose is about making money rather than learning. Apparently, it is not possible to do both – you can’t learn on the job.

'Provide evidence of what works'

As a chief executive in an FE college, I tell parents of our younger students that when they leave us they will be described as expert and skilled in their subject; resilient, reliable, caring, well-mannered, articulate, fully rounded individuals; good citizens able to take control of their destiny and able to navigate the world confidently.

Every parent gets a document setting out how they can help us achieve that. Our curriculum design works backwards from this objective. One obvious question that arises is how best we should construct programmes to achieve this.

There is a limit to what can be afforded, and a limit to how much a college experience can be individualised.

My challenge to staff is to provide evidence of what works – would students become more skilled if we taught them for more hours rather than padded out a programme with work experience? Would sessions with the armed forces or team sports or volunteering projects produce better resilience, greater ambition or self-management than a few days on a construction site?

'Would other approaches be better?'

Fortunately, there is some evidence that work experience works but I can’t find studies that compare different options.

The National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) looked at the Department for Work and Pensions' (DWP) work experience programme in 2012 and concluded that it helped improve the unemployed getting into work by about 6-8 per cent, but only compared to those who didn’t do it or do anything else instead.

Good news, but would other approaches have been better? If our students stay on and leave after level 2 instead of level 1, their employment rate shoots up from 60 per cent to 85 per cent, for example.

When you Google the effectiveness of work experience, you mainly find sites that simply assert its value, usually by companies who make money from careers guidance or temps or work experience.

'Students go to college to get an education and a future'

And surely only an English civil servant would decide that, ideally, work experience should be occupationally specific (completely misunderstanding technical education) and artificial (taking place in normal college time).

Consistently 63 per cent of our students who get jobs after college get them in sectors totally unrelated to the subject they studied.

When we ask, they tell us that is not a problem at all. They weren’t really intending to work in the field they chose to study.

They came to college to get an education and a future. Indeed, those areas that actively seek to provide very specific work experience, like construction and motor vehicle, show the highest rates of unemployment after college, much higher than for students in arts and hairdressing and sport.

'Not flexible enough'

I am convinced that is partly because we narrow their horizons down to their subject and when they don’t get that work they aren’t flexible enough to think of alternatives. Many young people studying at low levels choose subjects that keep them in their comfort zones. Shouldn’t we stop reinforcing those and make them do something scary?

Our students deserve to know from professional educators the best ways to gain resilience, confidence and control of their futures.

We must now have the data to analyse the effectiveness of different programmes, the ideal length of a work experience programme, the ideal timing, whether a week outdoors in the wet is better than a week in an office.

After all, Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton not via work experience in the barracks. Perhaps more sport is better? Though, of course, Orwell qualified this by adding that the opening battles of all subsequent wars have been lost there, so maybe Wellington was as guilty as we all sometimes are of mistaking a single observation for a general truth.

Ian Pryce is principal of Bedford College

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