One of the things we quiz students about when we’re reviewing schools and colleges is whether the careers advice they get is any good – and, digging deeper still, whether they’re encouraged or supported to get work experience. ‘Work experience?’ many youngsters retort aghast, while even those that have secured a corker of a placement all too often finish off with the disappointing but increasingly inevitable statement along the lines of, ‘Well, it wasn’t exactly the school that sorted it - I’m lucky because my family knows so-and-so.’
And so it is, as it has always been, that it’s not what you know... Equally concerning is the fact that some wealthier families can just buy their way in. One mother told us how she was horrified to find, at a charity auction this month, that three of the prizes were work experience placements, one with the CEO of Disney, if you please. ‘They went for hundreds of pounds,’ she said.
At the other end of the spectrum, parents tell us how so many employers won’t even consider taking youngsters from ordinary schools. Just this week, one told us how she approached a local organisation on behalf of her daughter - ‘Urr, no we don’t have anything...’ came the usual reply until she mentioned her daughter was at a renowned Cheshire grammar, not the comp just round the corner. ‘Oh, in that case...’
Work experience provides many benefits, providing skills and experiences, unlocking potential that the young person may not have known even existed and helping youngsters choose the right sector for them. Two-thirds of employers look for graduates with relevant work experience, according to UCAS, because it helps them prepare for work and develop general business awareness.
So if work experience is so important – and such a force for social mobility - why is it still so hard to get? Skills minister, Anne Milton, has promised change, with the provision of opportunities for work experience outlined as one of the four key priorities of the government’s latest careers strategy. The others priorities are: ensuring every school and college has a high-quality careers programme, offering tailored support for students, and utilising rich sources of information about jobs and careers. The Association of Colleges is sceptical if the new guidance on T-level work placements is anything to go by. T-levels, to the unfamiliar, is the name given by the media to the government’s planned overhaul of technical education. Between now and 2022, the plan is for 15 new pathways to be developed in 15 sector areas where substantial technical training is required. The government claims £50 million will be available from April next year for ‘high quality’ work placements for these T-levels, outlining the expectation for students to do at least 315 hours minimum. The AoC, however, has spoken out about challenges around – you guessed it – young people getting access to a full range of placements.
The world of work experience is complex – should laws around internships be tightened? How much of the work experience shortage is the fault of employers and how much of the blame falls to the government? Could we use work experience to help improve young people’s (diminishing) trust in businesses? What about young people in rural areas, where access (and travel) to businesses is even harder?
But the bottom line is that young people who don’t get to see how organisations operate on a day-to-day basis stand much less chance of securing a good job that they’ll enjoy – and increasingly lack of work experience may prevent them from even completing their formal qualification. So please, let’s address this thorny issue once and for all and make work experience a more level playing field.