Dr Christine Fanthome argues that good planning is essential if students are to maximise the benefits of workplace learning.

Many year 11 students opt to undertake work placements towards the end of the summer term, when the prospect of a new learning environment can represent an enjoyable contrast to the pressures of the GCSE examination period. It is very helpful to have the arrangements in place well in advance. This ensures that students are able to process their applications in order of preference rather than rushing to find something available at short notice. It also gives host organisations ample time to devise a challenging and interesting programme.

‘Students who start their preparations early will always get the best placements. These students use all the resources available to them and don’t expect to be successful straight away. It’s always a good idea to build in plenty of time as inevitably there will be a few rejections before the placement is secured.’ (Careers teacher)

Asking questions

As I pointed out in the October 2005 issue of PSHE & Citizenship Update, students are more likely to enjoy and make the most of their placements if they have taken time to identify what they want to do and what they hope to achieve. A classroom discussion early on which covers the following questions can help them to pinpoint issues.

  • Do you know what career you wish to pursue and are you hoping to find a placement in that area?
  • If you are undecided about your future career, do your interests and talents provide useful starting points to help look for a work placement?
  • Do you want to gain insight into a specific career or industry?
  • Would you like to experience life in a large organisation or small firm, or learn what it is like to work as part of a team?
  • Do you want to learn by playing an active role or would you be happy increasing your knowledge through shadowing and observation?
  • Are there local opportunities for gaining experience of jobs associated with prestigious national organisations?
  • Are you clear about how far you are prepared to travel, the time you have available and whether you need the organisation to pay your travel expenses?
  • What personal constraints may affect your work placement choices?
  • Do you have any special needs that should be taken into account?

If students need help to identify their individual requirements and preferences, it can be worthwhile looking through the job pages of local newspapers both to find potential organisations and to locate the type of work that appeals. The school careers office and web resources are also useful, as is taking time to consider whether any personal contacts are in a position to assist. Presentations from students who have already undertaken placements are enlightening and can also highlight key considerations. Similarly, classroom discussions in which students state what they are seeking and invite comments and suggestions from their peers are helpful. Students may need reminding that much of what they will learn is transferable and will be beneficial even if their final career choice is in a completely different area.

‘We cannot stress enough to the students the importance of this time in the workplace. The more effort and enthusiasm the students put into the placement, the more they will gain from the experience.’ (Careers teacher)

Applying for a placement

Since finding a suitable work placement can take time, particularly as organisations may be slow to respond, students should be encouraged to keep a careful record from the outset of any applications made, the relevant dates, and any feedback. They can also benefit from classroom or homework assignments that give them more information about companies and the application process. These could include:

  • researching the relevant company in order to acquire some basic information about it and demonstrate interest at interview
  • drafting a CV
  • writing a draft covering letter which indicates particular areas of interest, skills and personal attributes, and overall aspirations regarding the placement such as a preference for shadowing or undertaking specific tasks
  • practising an interview situation through role play
  • discussing self-presentation, which includes recognising appropriate dress and behaviour codes
  • discussing expectations and how to make the most of the work placement.

I wouldn’t have had a clue about how to write a CV and they gave us a sheet on it. I tried to highlight all the good points and not put anything negative. I tried to make myself look better.’ (Sixth form student)

Make a direct approach – find out the name of the appropriate person to talk to by calling potential organisations. Then email them and follow up with a call. Always see the placement as a means to an end but don’t just think about the next step – the one after that is the most important.’ (Public relations officer)

It can be very disappointing when students arrive for an interview and haven’t researched the company at all.’ (Manager)

Offices are often visited by clients and staff therefore need to look presentable. Nobody was ever rejected for having clothes that were not a perfect fit. Dirty, ripped, worn-out or “cheap fashion”, however contemporary, doesn’t impress.’ (Manager)

Additional resources and information

Making Work Experience Work www.mwew.com
National Council for Work Experience www.work-experience.org
National Education Business Partnership Network www.nebpn.org
Qualifications and Curriculum Authority www.qca.org.uk/14-19/11-16schools/110_136.htm
The Trident Trust www.thetridenttrust.org.uk

Dr Christine Fanthome is a visiting lecturer at City University, London. She is author of Work Placements – A Survival Guide for Students, Palgrave Macmillan (2005).