The path from the school gates to the factory gates is a well-beaten one, but increasingly the journey is being made by young people not yet ready to leave the classroom, as education and industry co-operate to prepare the workforce of the future.
This trend was reflected in a recent White Paper on 14-19 education and skills, which urged employers to offer more work placements to young people.
Today, employer influence stretches as far as deciding on elements of the curriculum and some have been invited to contribute to a system of 14 vocational diplomas via their local sector skills councils.
The first four diplomas, which include vocational training on IT, engineering, media studies and health and social care, are due to hit the classroom in 2008. The remainder will arrive by 2015, and be delivered on nationwide basis along with GCSEs and A levels.
Details of the exact composition of the diplomas are sketchy at the moment, while some sectors get over their disappointment that Baccalaureate-style diplomas will not be introduced – as recommended by the Tomlinson working party on 14-19 reform.
Meanwhile educators are seeing an increasing formalisation of their relationship with employers. For example, since 2004 it has been compulsory for secondary school children, in year 10, to take a block of one or two weeks’ work experience.
According to the Department for Education and Skills, the idea is to broaden their “work-related learning” while the curriculum for this group, aged 15, requires them to “learn through, for and about work” from their desks.
“Even bright children don’t necessarily have the right skills for work,” says Roger Opie trust director of Head Teachers in Industry, who believes intelligent young people may miss out on employment opportunities because of this shortfall.
“Many young people need to think about the basics such as enthusiasm, appearance and punctuality,” he says.
Traditionally, it has been presumed the onus is on employers to make work experience as meaningful as possible, so young people get the most from their placement. However, a recent survey from City & Guilds found more than half of businesses want more guidance from schools and colleges and a financial incentive from Government, primarily through business tax relief.
For many young people, the current situation is equally unsatisfactory.
The Free to Choose research published by the Equal Opportunities Commission in March found work experience was a source of disappointment to some young people who found it often reinforced gender stereotypes. Rather than pushing the boundaries, it seems employers continue to exclude boys from care work placements and overlook girls from engineering roles, for example.
The CBI, however, says employers are doing their bit. It points to figures showing that 59% of employers offer work experience for 14- to 16-year-olds.
The organisation has also called for work experience processes to be formalised and recently, in response to the 14-19 White Paper, called for government to put in place “a national infrastructure for experience to give pupils sound knowledge and understanding of the world of work”.
Currently, charitable trusts and employer networks, such as The Trident Trust and National Education Business Partnership, act as brokers between the schools and employers. And while the Education Business Partnership does arrange 300,000 placements a year, there is still a sense of randomness about the proceedings.
At LandRover, corporate citizenship and young people development manager Ruth Martin says she is beset with “up to five or six phone calls a day” from schools and charitable trusts wanting to discuss different work placement initiatives.
She also feels that unnecessary stress is put on employers during June and July as these are the months when most schools timetable-in their work placements.
“If there was a way of spreading them throughout the year, we could take more young people,” she says.
Educators are also calling for work experience to be standardised, claiming the quality of workplace opportunity varies depending on where the child lives.
Opie says: “Not all children get the same deal.” And in this respect school children fare worse than students and graduates, according to the director of the National Council of Work Experience Liz Rhodes.
Her organisation, which deals with placements for students, has researched a quality mark for employers that run well thought out or useful placements and will launch this measure in the autumn.
Rhodes would like to see the system introduced across all age ranges “to provide a seamless approach”.
So, in the absence of a formal code, what does the government expect employers to do and why should employers bother with a time-consuming process that requires stringent health and safety measures and the policing of such sensitive areas as the relationships between employees and visiting youngsters?
Stephen Gardner, director of work-based learning at the Learning and Skills Council, says: “Where work placements work best is when an employer is committed and sees it as a first step in the recruitment process. In an ideal situation, they offer young people an idea of what it’s like to go to work and help them focus on the GCSE grades an employer will require when they go back into school,” he says.
LandRover is one company that uses work placements as a springboard for its recruitment programme.
The vehicle manufacturer takes 300 young people a year for two week placements with each one facing a rigorous selection procedure prior to commencement. And a risk assessment is carried out on each candidate, which is signed by the young person’s supervisor and circulated to their parents and teachers.
The payback for this rigour comes when the firm begins recruiting.
“Last year 50% of our recruits were people who had previously come onto the site for work experience” says Martin.
Also enthusiastic is engineering and manufacturing company Stannah, home of the stairlift. As part of a work experience scheme established in 1993, the company gives 14-year-olds specific tasks and a record of achievement. Supervisors sign off each element as the youngster works through to completion.
Learning and development manager Jackie Wells believes that everybody benefits. She has found that running work experience programmes encourages applications for the company’s apprenticeship scheme and benefits the personal development of employees. “It’s good for the mentor and mentee,” she says.
All this adds up to a rallying call for employers to make work placements and vocational qualifications as meaningful as possible says Sheila Hoile, director of skills strategy at CITB Construction Skills, the national training organisation for the construction industry.
“We have to provide young people with an experience that demonstrates the workplace is as challenging as going down the academic route,” she says. “If a young person comes into your company and all you offer them is loads of filing, it’s no wonder they decide to stay on at school into the sixth form.”
Hoile is looking for an “integrated dialogue between industry and education”. Work experience can take the form of simulations of work in schools, she says, while companies should regularly send employees into schools and colleges to build up the lines of communication. Hoile will be building on this practice herself from September when she pilots a GCSE in construction.
But, at Semta – the SSC for engineering and manufacturing – the head of education Ian Carnell is concerned about the blurring of lines between education and industry.
The new diplomas, he says, are in danger of becoming “a middle route – neither academic nor vocational”.
Carnell doesn’t want to see a diploma detracting from his sector’s well-established and trusted NVQ framework, which supports a popular apprenticeship system.
“Our employers trust the national occupational standards behind the NVQs,” he says. “We believe young people will see the diploma route as acceptable to the detriment of apprenticeships.
“Our preferred route is for the diploma to lead into apprenticeships so that we don’t get lots of diploma-holders and no apprentices.”
So, as another set of school children prepare to sit their exams this summer, the debate on how these qualifications translate to the world of work rages on.
Making a success of work experience
Find a broker. Organisations such as the National Education Business Partnership or the Trident Trust. Brokers can help with issues such as researching funding from the DfES and matching young people with employers
- Identify which departments are willing and able to take young people
- Offer the students a pre-placement interview so that objectives can be discussed
- Find a mini-project to give structure to the placement
- Name one member of staff as the key contact for the school, broker and student. This person should also organise the young person’s induction on the first day