The Work Experience Placements of Secondary School Students: Widening Horizons or Reproducing Social Inequality?

A report by Hatcher, R. and Le Gallais, T., Birmingham City University

This report examines whether the distribution of work experience (WEX) placements among secondary school age students is differentiated by class and gender, the processes by which this may occur and whether this therefore impacts on the widening of students’ horizons and future employment chances which work experience could potentially foster. The authors cite studies suggesting that equitably-distributed WEX placements could provide students with broader ideas and experiences of the workplace that could counter social inequality, but is current practice achieving this?

The research was undertaken with five English schools of varying overall socio-economic status (SES), through questionnaires of a total of 1000 Year 10 students, interviews with teachers and 98 pupils selected by teachers to represent a range of abilities and gender-mixed. Findings are set in the context of current literature and the 2007 CBI report Time Well Spent. A key question is whether the onus on students to find their own WEX placements impacts on issues of equity and social reproduction.

The findings generally support the view that the lower the SES of the school, the greater the likelihood of students being placed in WEX roles that reproduce patterns of social inequality. Social class is found to play a large role in these overall patterns. School intervention practices are also observed to play a very significant role in affecting placement allocation, for instance, through the encouragement of student choice of placement or the use of brokers such as Connexions. The ‘freedom of choice’ model of students choosing their own placement tends to mask inequalities of opportunity. Where students are encouraged to find their own placements, pupils at higher SES schools have greater recourse to the social capital of parents with high occupational aspirations and familial contacts in the professional working world and are thus influenced by parental choice.

Another facet looked at by the report is how a more directive approach can help overcome the barriers in front of students from lower SES schools obtaining more ‘aspirational’ work placements. The school with the lowest SES had the highest proportion of students seeing the school and careers staff as having ‘quite a lot/massive’ influence in their placements. It is striking that this school obtained a high number of placements in professional areas, including offices, companies and banks, medical/pharmaceutical and legal placements compared to the other school in the ‘Low SES’ category – and even with the schools in the ‘Middle SES’ category in the case of legal placements. The report states that the most likely explanation for the difference between the two low SES schools is that the staff at the lowest SES school set high aspirations and supported students in finding such placements. Thus, this indicates that the school directive approach has a positive effect on the range of placements and appears an important explanatory factor in the high number of placements in professional areas.

The report examines the perceived benefits of work experience by students. Those at highest SES school were most likely (34% of students) to report that their interpersonal skills were strengthened by their placement, indicating that these students were aware that though the job itself may not correspond to their future careers they recognised the importance of a range of transferable skills in the market place rather than just job specific knowledge and academic qualifications. Those who spoke of ‘acting respectfully’ and ‘as a grown up’ has been treated as colleagues and given responsibilities, contrasting with students who felt they’d been given menial tasks that employers would not normally perform themselves, suggesting that the experience of WEX can play a significant role in boosting students’ confidence, motivation and aspiration if students experience a range of workplaces.

To conclude, the authors compare findings with literature and suggest ways that future policy-making could contribute to greater equity in work experience placements. It mentions the enterprise curriculum and citizen curriculum as ways for students to develop a more critical understanding of the workplace and a direct experience of a range of workplaces integrated into the wider curriculum to a much greater extent than currently exists.

Download The work experience placements of secondary school students: Widening horizons or reproducing social inequality?