From how to assess your current provision and engage employers, to how to match students with placements, prepare them and then debrief them after the event — Jenny Asher, Development Manager for the National Education Business Partnership Network, guides us through the core issues to consider to provide work placements that provide first-class learning opportunities that will have a lifelong impact.

In the new-look 14–19 curriculum, with the increased focus on vocational, work-related and enterprise learning, work experience for students has become more important than ever. While work experience has always had an important impact on personal, social and career development, there is an increasing focus on individual learning outcomes and curriculum and work-related learning (WRL) links.

In September 2004, work-related learning became a statutory requirement for all Key Stage 4 students. The statutory requirement includes enterprise, which was given an additional focus in September 2005 with £55 million being allocated to schools to support enterprise education. Work experience can be a powerful tool in delivering a number of aspects of work-related learning as it is the one education business link activity taken by whole year groups of students.

Planning coverage To maximise the potential of work experience programmes, the process needs careful planning, delivery and monitoring. Curriculum managers need to know how the learning outcomes for pupils can be enhanced by an effective and proactive whole-school approach to work experience.

This article aims to show you how by drawing on information from leaflets compiled by the National Support Group for Work Experience Organisers, a network funded by the DfES and which includes representatives from Education Business Partnerships, Trident and Connexions. For more details, see the National Education Business Partnership Network (NEBPN) website: www.nebpn.org.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) has produced a guidance framework setting out nine elements that work-related learning should cover – see the box below right. For details of the suggested minimum provision that schools should offer, see the QCA’s work-related learning website at: www.qca.org.uk/14-19/6th-form-schools/68_2313.htm. This also sets out what learning outcomes can follow for each element.

Auditing As work experience should not be seen in isolation, the best starting point for a review is with an audit of work-related learning taking place across the school. This will highlight possible areas for development. To help you audit your current provision, answer the questions listed in the box at the bottom of page 6. It is worth working with your local work experience organiser or broker to consider these issues together and to plan appropriate action to address these.

Many of these issues cannot be looked at in isolation, but need a whole-school approach, and will need support from the senior management team (SMT). It will also be helpful to have detailed discussions with the local work experience broker for the school or Education Business Link Organisation (EBLO), who will have specific expertise in this area and should be able to offer resources and support materials.

Building success
A quality work experience placement will depend on a number of factors including:

  • good planning
  • a good match of student to placement
  • a willing and well-briefed supervisor
  • knowledge of intended outcomes (by the student and employer)
  • a good debrief
  • flexibility (of both the student and employer).

To help find suitable employers the majority of schools will use a broker/work experience organisation. These include Trident, Connexions and Education Business Partnerships, who should be known to the school. If any school needs help, the NEBPN will be able to offer guidance – see: www.nebpn.org for contact details.

Such organisations will have a bank of employers recruited, briefed and checked for health and safety and other legal requirements including employer liability insurance. They will also be able to check new contacts suggested by the school.

Some organisers will additionally, by agreement, help with all or part of the matching to employers and with paperwork. Brokers will generally negotiate placements on behalf of a range of schools and students, so it is important for the school coordinator to pass on to each employer anything that specifically relates to the individual student. This includes any special learning or other needs, and any specific project or assignment work which they would like the student to complete. Employers are generally very happy to assist with such work if they are consulted in advance of planning the student’s programme. Employers also appreciate information that is not couched in education jargon. Some suggested projects are included later in this article.

Engaging employers If the school is directly recruiting employers for work experience or other work-related learning opportunities, it will be important to consider the ‘triggers’ for employer engagement when making any requests. Research undertaken in this area, including that by the Business Group of the NEBPN, has shown that many employers do have a very positive view of helping schools. The NEBPN has undertaken employer surveys and this is supported by organisations such as Business In the Community who commission annual surveys of large corporates. Education is also shown as the area they most wish to support. Some of the reasons for employers’ involvement are listed in the box above left.

Requests of any nature need to be explicit about the time commitment and be as clear as possible about the activity and the support the employer will receive from the school.

Work experience matching Matching pupils to work placements is not an exact science and is tackled in a range of ways. In many cases, pupils will be asked to choose from a list of types of occupations.

Sometimes students are encouraged to find their own placements, whereas other schools discourage this. Sometimes the broker will match based on information provided by the school, sometimes this is done in school by the school coordinator with or without negotiation with the student.

Research from the Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) into occupational segregation highlighted the traditional gender choices still made by young people. In the full report, Free to choose, the researchers comment that the use of ‘private’ (in other words, student-found) placements could be seen to favour students from middle-class homes, whose parents might have a far wider range of contacts with the professions (legal, medical and so on). It also concludes that allowing students ‘free’ choice regarding work experience placements tends to reinforce gender stereotypes. (For details of this report’s findings see CMU, May 2005, Issue 55, or download the report via: www.eoc.org.uk.

However, in practical terms there are potential problems with placing students in non-traditional roles. Unless the student is comfortable with this, they may show a lack of interest or even hostility on occasions and ‘lose’ a valuable placement for the future. Because attitudes seem to be entrenched by Key Stage 4, consideration of equal opportunities issues are more likely to have impact if started at an earlier age, integrated into personal, social and health education (PSHE) and citizenship programmes of study.

Resources for this support work include:

  • A better way to work resource pack from the Trades Union Congress (TUC), which looks at a range of issues within the workplace including rights and responsibilities, health and safety and equal opportunities.
  • materials from the Equal Opportunities Commission, for example, the downloadable materials on their website aimed at boys and girls making subject choices – see: www.eoc.org.uk

By Key Stage 4, young people can and should have been encouraged and challenged to think about a range of opportunities. However, it is generally true that placements will be more successful if the pupil has an interest in the type of placement and can convey this to the employer.

Student preparation In the past, many schools have tended to squeeze work experience preparation into PSHE lessons, delivered through tutor groups. However, by taking a genuine whole-school cross-curricular approach, there can be very significant work-related outcomes for this activity.

The major aim for preparation should be to ensure that students are eager and willing to learn and recognise that they have to play their part in making the overall experience successful. This supports enterprise education in that enterprise capabilities depend on generating in young people lateral thinking and open-mindedness together with a positive attitude. Briefings might explore links to subject areas, such as maths within a retail environment, or information and communications technology (ICT) within an office environment. Specific or general projects or tasks could be set in negotiation with employers or research questions could be included in the students’ logbooks. Pupils should also be able to articulate any specific personal objectives if asked to an interview by an employer. Including the use of labour market information in discussions of placements will help to increase the level of the students’ economic and business understanding. The local Chamber of Commerce, Careers Company, or Economic Development Department of the local authority might be able to help with this or it could be coordinated by the business studies department.

Preparation can provide the work-related activities listed in the box below right.

Running the placement If the school is using a broker for organising work experience, the student will have an agreed job profile and all the relevant employer details before the placement begins. In any event, it is good practice for the student to contact the employer beforehand, if they have not had an interview, to break the ice and check any last minute details. It is essential for the parents to have agreed to the specific placement by means of a parental consent form held by the school. The student also needs a named contact in the school in the event of problems. Pupils respond well to the stimulation of placements, which provide opportunities for a range of tasks, particularly when they can use their initiative. A varied programme (which is one that a broker will often try to negotiate) can give pupils the opportunity to look at existing practices and recognise and apply transferable skills and knowledge. Students might also be able to share their ideas with the company through a formal or informal presentation.

Some brokers have developed student logbooks cross-referencing to elements of the work-related framework, so that students can evidence their work-related learning before, during and after their placement. Other brokers have added research questions or assignments to the students’ logbooks. If the school has not made any changes to the logbook used, this could be an area for development. It will also provide excellent evidence for any work-related learning audit or for Ofsted inspections.

For examples of research tasks for students, see the box left. For more academic students, research projects could be set asking them to look at these aspects in more detail or at other topics such as market forces and business planning. Work experience coordinators will need to ensure the employer is on board with any research so they can provide the opportunity for this to take place.

Placements can enable young people to gain a greater understanding of how business and the economy operate at a local and national level. The placement itself can also provide the student with opportunities for a range of work-related learning outcomes – examples are listed in the box above. Once again, these have been cross-referenced to the nine points of the QCA framework listed in the box on page 5.

It is recommended good practice for the student to be visited, if possible, at least once during the placement. If the visit is out of the area, then this could be conducted by telephone. However, if the placement is one that is extended, then the frequency of visits would need to be increased to pick up any potential issues, concerns, problems, and to record progress. It is important that there is a monitoring and recording process at school and student level.

Within schools, it is hoped that a number of teachers will be involved in visiting the employers. It is helpful if they have a thorough briefing beforehand so they are clear about the aims and objectives of the individual placements. It is also an ideal opportunity for links to be explored with other school initiatives, if the employer has the time to discuss this.

Debriefing Debriefings can provide students with the opportunity to carry out a range of learning activities in relation to the QCA framework – for examples, see the box above.

Schools might want to consider involving employers in the debrief, or organising a celebratory event with prizes for student logbooks. By whatever means the debrief is managed, it is important to involve both the broker and employer so that placements can be reviewed and improved. Employers frequently complain that they do not receive feedback on the difference the placement has made. Regarding the broker, a review about the placements will be extremely helpful in pinpointing any possible areas for improvement. There could then be a further review involving senior managers, especially to audit the work-related learning that has taken place.

Longer-term review of impact A longer-term review of the impact of the work experience enables students and teachers to reflect on the learning that has taken place and how these experiences are being used within the curriculum to enhance the young person’s personal, social and enterprising skills. Longer-term reviews could take place perhaps six months after the students’ placements. This could take the form of a self-assessment form completed by the student, reports or questionnaires from tutors or subject teachers and might also include comments from parents or guardians. The questionnaire could be based round aspects of the work-related framework to show the impact of the experience. Reflecting on their learning in this way can involve students in a range of learning tasks related to the QCA framework, such as those listed in the box above right.

Work experience needs to be reviewed within a school annually to check that it is still ‘fit for purpose’ and meets the curriculum and work-related learning needs of the cohort. This process should include questionnaires or telephone calls to employers either by the school or by the broker on behalf of the school to check on their satisfaction with the organisation of placements and students they have hosted. This also enables the employer to receive feedback and thanks for their contribution and helps ensure any concerns or queries can be addressed. Work experience is only one of the work-related learning activities schools will provide for Key Stage 4 students. The recent pack by QCA, Work-related learning at Key Stage 4, is an excellent reference point regarding other activities such as workshadowing, workplace visits and business challenges. For details of other resources that can help you in developing a quality work experience and WRL provision, see the box below.

Jenny Asher, Development Manager, National Education Business Partnership Network.

Nine elements of the QCA guidance framework Students will: 1 Recognise, develop and apply their skills for enterprise and employability 2 Use their experience of work, including work experience and part-time jobs, to extend their understanding of work 3 Learn about the ways business enterprises operate, working roles and conditions, and rights and responsibilities in the workplace 4 Develop awareness of the extent and diversity of local and national employment opportunities 5 Relate their own abilities, attributes and achievements to career intentions and make informed choices based on an understanding of the alternatives 6 Undertake tasks and activities set in work contexts 7 Learn from contact with personnel from different employment sectors 8 Have experience (direct or indirect) of working practices and environments

9 Engage with ideas, challenges and applications from the business world

Employers’ reasons for providing work experience

  • To be an important part of the community in which they work
  • To engage and work with fresh young minds
  • To raise the knowledge, understanding and profile of their industry
  • To motivate their own employees and help with personal development
  • To help with retention and recruitment of staff
  • To contribute to the development of the future workforce

Research task ideas for students

  • Finding out about the structures and organisation of their placement, for example, how departments are organised and roles and responsibilities of different members of staff
  • Reading company literature and websites to research particular information about the employer
  • Looking at the location of their placement, the local infrastructure, and the labour skills needed by their company
  • Conducting interviews to ask about the areas of development at a micro and macro level
  • Looking at the use of technology and its impact

Examples of WRL opportunities from work experience

  • Applying key and employability skills (1)
  • Conducting interviews with employees (4, 7)
  • Health and safety induction (3, 8)
  • Recording information in a logbook (2)
  • Self-assessment and monitoring (2)
  • Carrying out work-based tasks (6, 7, 8, 9)
  • Completing curriculum assignments and tasks (6)
  • Meeting learning objectives (5)

Preparation activities

  • Mock interviews (1, 5)
  • Preparation of CVs and application forms (1, 5)
  • Health and safety briefings (3)
  • Roleplay and exercises to challenge stereotyping (3) — this could involve employers in non-traditional roles such as female engineers
  • Identifying key skills and employability skills within job descriptions (1, 4)
  • Developing individual learning plans (5)
  • Research and decision-making about placement choices (4,5)
  • Talks by employers on employer expectations, especially stressing the need for a positive attitude
  • Briefings on labour market information (4)
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