How School Work Experience Policies Can Widen Student Horizons or Reproduce Social Inequality

By Tricia Le Gallais and Richard Hatcher, Birmingham City University.

In Employer Engagement in Education: Theories and Evidence (Routledge, 2014) eds. Anthony Mann, Julian Stanley and Louise Archer.

This article sets out the findings of two research studies which investigate the relationship between the work placements that school students undertake and their social class. The initial study concerns research into the work experience placements of Year 10 students at five secondary schools in a large urban area in the midlands. The second study involves follow-up research which looks in more detail at the work placement policies of one particular school from the initial study. Ultimately this paper explores the extent to which work experience placements in Year 10 confirm patterns of social selection and reproduction or disrupt them. In other words, whether or not work placements simply reproduce social inequality or, whether they succeed in allowing students to access environments which may have otherwise appeared inaccessible to them.The five schools involved in the main study were chosen to provide a broad range in terms of their social composition. In order to categorise the schools according to this composition, le Gallais and Hatcher use eligibility for free school meals (FSM) as a proxy indicator of the socio-economic status (SES) of the school populations. The Avon school (categorised as high SES) have only 2% of the student population on FSM, while Bedford and Cumbria schools (categorised as middle SES) have 10% and 17% of their pupils on FSM respectively and Devon and Essex (categorised as low SES) have 54% and 63% FSM pupils respectively. The research uses questionnaires with a total sample size of 740 respondents from the Year 10 cohorts at each of the five schools. In addition, 98 students from this sample were interviewed in conjunction with interviews with the teachers at each school who were responsible for the work placement programmes.From the questionnaire and interview data the authors find a clear correlation between social status of workplace and school SES. For example, the high SES school (Avon) had the highest percentage of students (21%) placed in offices, companies and banks and the lowest percentage of students in non-professional retail based workplaces (11%). Furthermore, one low SES school (Devon) placed only 5% of their pupils in professional workplaces (offices, companies, banks), 3% of students in the medical/pharmaceutical and legal professions, while 26% of pupils went to non-professional retail work. Such results show that In general the lower the SES of the school the less likely placements are to be located in a managerial and professional workplace. However, the low SES school in Essex exhibited a significant anomaly in the data relating to the medical/pharmaceutical and legal categories as 15% of students undertook such a placement. When this result is compared to the other middle and lower SES schools (Devon, Bedford, Cumbria) that all placed less that 5% of their pupils in medical or legal placements, the Essex school’s work placement policy appears to effectively widen the horizons of their pupils more than any other.

All the schools involved in the research distribute work placements using a combination of student choice and school allocation. Essex was the only school that emphasized the role of the school itself in allocating placements, the other institutions focused on the students own choices. Over 60% of the students from each school stated that their parents were key influences upon their choices. The teachers interviewed believed that social class background was a significant factor in the ways in which parents’ influences students’ work experience choices. Teachers from the low SES schools felt that in some cases the deprivation of the surrounding area may lead to low expectations by parents and pupils or that some parents may not have the social and cultural capital to translate their aspirations into work placements. The high SES school with more professional parents had a higher proportion of students in professional placements when compared with the lower SES schools with fewer parents in professional roles. This finding shows a consistent pattern of social class differentiation, in which family and cultural capital are significant factors.

The final stage of the initial research uses data from three of the schools (Avon, Cumbria, Devon), where students were interviewed after their placements, to investigate the relationship between the social status of the placement sites and the roles and responsibilities undertake there. Findings appear to demonstrate class-related differences between the three schools as only 2% of the students at the high SES school reported carrying out menial work, whereas 21% and 34% of students at the middle and low SES schools respectively reported this. Additionally, more pupils at the high SES school reported participating in “responsible tasks” while “being treated like a colleague”. The general conclusion of this research is that “the distribution of students across work placements, and their experience of them, is strongly differentiated by social class” and as such, current school programmes commonly “do little to widen students career horizons”.

The follow-up study in the Essex school involved 36 students completing questionnaires combined with five interviews with students and others with staff members. It was this school’s directive policy in allocating placements which sets it apart from the other schools. While the other schools allowed students a large degree of choice in finding a placement 78% of (Essex) students said that the school found their placement for them. As the head teacher explains “our directing them means showing them a different side of life” which they may not have seen had they made their own choices. The findings of the second study are as follows:

  • The percentage of pupils in medical and legal placements from Essex increased “from 15% in 2008 to 24% in 2011” (p.15);
  • 69% said they were “treated like colleagues” and “only 9% referred to carrying out menial tasks on a placement” (p.16);
  • 70% of students said “their ideas about future careers had been widened” and 50% said “they were now considering a career they never thought they could aspire to” (p.16).

To conclude their paper, Le Gallais and Hatcher offer five suggestions for a work experience policy that effectively widens students’ horizons.