Work experience: let’s look beyond the photocopier

By Sarah Lynch and Tami McCrone

The recent publication of advice to help schools, colleges and other training providers deliver quality work experience post-16 by the Department for Education (DfE) was very welcome – particularly as this advice was informed by our evaluation of the 16-19 Work Experience Trials.

The advice document emphasises the value of work experience to all learners’ journeys – whether doing academic qualifications such as A Levels, vocational qualifications, apprenticeships, traineeships or supported internships.

Our evidence supports the Department’s view that work experience should be tailored to suit an individual’s attainment and career aspirations, and a number of our research studies confirm that high quality work experience can help to equip young people with the skills they need for further and higher education and the world of work.

Whether a simulated working environment (such as college companies) is never as valuable as work experience in an external workplace is, however, open to question. Of key importance is the quality of the experience, including thorough preparation, appropriate learning objectives and the level of employer involvement. And that quality should be closely monitored by (among other things) evaluating and reviewing the outcomes – something our research shows is often lacking.

All means all

The focus of our recent study was on 16-19 provision. However, many of the messages apply equally to pre-16s (despite work experience no longer being compulsory for this age group). Indeed, these young people would benefit greatly from being exposed to the same high quality work experience that is considered so important for their post-16 counterparts.

We’ve all heard of the young person who’s spent two weeks in the summer term of Year 10 photocopying, and deriving scant benefit from the experience! In the past, such poor quality provision pre-16 has been cited as a reason to deny them access to what can be a valuable experience in the right context. But surely the right response to poor provision is better provision, not no provision at all? For example, there is much to suggest that the components of the enterprise education part of the Study Programmes (workplace visits, enterprise projects, mentoring, work shadowing, employer involvement in project work, and employer visits/talks) would benefit all young people pre-16.

Awareness of the world of work can only augment the learning process pre-16, provide young people with valuable challenges and insights, and contribute to engaging and motivating young people to continue learning. Work experience and ‘enterprise education’ would serve two broad purposes pre-16: firstly, to help to inform decisions about post-16 pathways; and secondly to build awareness of the world of work and the essential employment skills inherent in working life today.

Young people should be beginning to consider pathways to employment or higher education considerably before the end of Year 11 – a fact recognised by the British Youth Council in its commendable current campaign for an improvement to current provision of work experience undertaken by school pupils. Improvements in post-16 provision arising from our research are then to be welcomed. But let’s not rest on our laurels: aren’t our young people pre-16 also entitled to high quality work experience?