School Work Experience: Young People and the Labour Market

An article by Ahier, J., Chaplain, R., Linfield, R., Moore, R. and Williams, J., Journal of Education and Work, 13(3), pp. 273-288

In this article, based on research in the Cambridge area, the authors first introduce the changing education and labour market and, suggesting that Work Experience (WX) opportunities should reflect such changes towards an increasingly differentiated, ‘flexibilised’ workplace, investigate the extent to which this is the case.

The research is based on a relatively small sample of 60 pupil and 139 teacher questionnaires and interviews with twelve pupils and six teachers in five schools. 32 interviews were also held with non-school providers of WX schemes and employers providing WX placements in a range of sectors. Whilst acknowledging the limit of their sample, Cambridge is deemed an area representing the economic and workplace changes that the authors regard as ‘appropriate to a new model of WX’. They examine WX organisation and practice on the ‘attitudinal’ and ‘structural’ levels and ask whether contemporary accounts of economic change are informing thinking about WX and educational change and investigate the factors that could lead WX towards a “more formal and structured model including curriculum-linked assessment”.

While the authors find some mismatch between the different agendas of employers, teachers and pupils regarding their involvement in WX, they note the dominance of a ‘pastoral rationale’ for WX and a common absence of either a bigger picture of economic change or detailed local labour market knowledge. Employers tend to see their involvement as charitable (or to recruit young people as employees and, notably, potential customers for services). Teachers tend not to relate WX to the broader curriculum and some see it as detracting from school work, though the authors note that there is little evidence to support such a view. Pupils tend to enjoy their WE and relate it to personal developmental goals or a chance to sample careers, a view shared by teachers. Overall, the authors note a ‘diffuse’, general attitude towards WX that conveys an idea of the ‘world of work’ as “intimate and local rather than historical, structural and global”.

The organisational approach to WX (i.e. using brokers or schools organising placements) does not seem to affect the parameters under consideration, and the authors suggest that there is no single model of ‘best practice’ or organisational delivery. Schools have to take what is locally available and have little control over WX as a learning experience, leading them to question whether a national system of WX could obtain sufficient uniformity of quality of experience to provide the level of confidence required by a more formal model. Furthermore, they remark upon the ‘ad hoc’ quality of the arrangement of placements, despite the requirement for providers to be registered with the local Careers Guidance and to meet health and safety regulations- employers prefer to keep their commitment flexible and on their own terms, and to avoid too much paperwork rather than be incorporated in more formal systems of provision. Of note here is the way placement organisation may fail to meet equal opportunities demands, as employees may request placements for their own children and ‘pre-empt’ formal allocation of pupils to places.

In addition to prevailing attitudes to WX, the authors note some structural limitations on placement provision, particularly in the high-tech industries whose workforces exhibit the non-traditional, multi-skilled trends cited to characterise the changing world of work. Perceived health and safety and quality control concerns were seen to limit the possibility of quality placements in the very workplaces that could provide the most desirable WE placements in a model where WX reflects economic change. On the other hand, the financial services are noted to be most favourable to WX and to provide the most structured placements. This is raised as a concern, regarding the rationale of recruiting young people as potential customers and the way educational approaches to IT and other skills may be resonant with the financial sector but not with the demands of the manufacturing industries. Thus educational trends and attitudes to WX are not concordant with the challenges facing young people.

The authors conclude that both attitudinal trends and structural limitations constrain possibilities for the development of WX and suggest that their albeit tentative conclusions regarding the issues surrounding WX and young peoples’ educational pathways could well be of note to policy-makers and educators and merit further investigation.

‘School Work Experience: Young People and the Labour Market’ – full report