Work Experience and Work Placements in Secondary School Education

Australian Council for Educational Research, Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth

This research focussed on participation in work experience and workplace learning programmes in Australia; the characteristics of pupils who participated in such programmes; and perceptions of the value of work experience programmes compared to part-time jobs, following renewed policy emphasis on work-based learning. It found that part-time jobs are more highly valued than work experience by pupils in terms of gaining employability skills; and that workplace learning programmes, which are extended work experience placements and usually involve a qualification element, are successful in opening up opportunities to pupils with academic or social disadvantage.

There was a decided push towards work-based learning in Australia both through work experience programmes and structured workplace learning in vocational education and training (VET) schools during the late 1990s and 2000s. These developments were mainly aimed at Year 11 and Year 12 students as an addition to their curriculum. Using 1996 and 1997 data from the Longitudinal Surveys of Australian Youth (LSAY) program, which followed the same pupils as they progressed through school Years 9-11, this research explores student participation in work experience, school-industry and other workplace learning programmes.

In terms of participation, approximately 84% of students participated in work experience programmes nationally but rates varied by state, gender and type of school attended. Demographically, girls were on average 5% more likely to participate in work experience programmes than boys in both Years 10 and 11. The explanation for this is not immediately clear, but may reflect the fact that boys are more likely to leave school at earlier ages than girls to undertake jobs or apprenticeships, with the boys remaining in education being less motivated by work experience programmes.

There were no statistically significant difference in participation rates between state and independent schools but the amount of time spent on work experience programmes did differ. Independent school pupils were more likely to spend a single week on work experience than their state educated peers, who on average spent more time in the workplace. Participation rates were only slightly higher in rural than urban areas, which may reflect the nature and importance of local networks in finding work placements.

In terms of part-time work, 44% of all students in the sample had part-time jobs after work during Year 10, with girls more likely to be doing part-time work than boys. Interestingly, the perceived value of part-time jobs was much higher than work experience programmes: pupils reported that part-time jobs were more valuable in terms of learning people skills, following instructions, self-motivation and confidence. One possible explanation for results is that the lengthier time devoted to a part-time job than work experience results in a higher perceived value, amongst students.

In terms of workplace learning programmes, whereby pupils spend an extended length of time in a workplace to gain specific skills and knowledge and often some form of qualification, participation rates were comparatively low at 8%. Gender, school-type, location and family background all played a role in the likelihood of participation: boys, pupils from state schools, pupils from rural areas and pupils from parents in skilled or unskilled backgrounds were all more likely to participate in workplace learning programmes than their female, independent school, metropolitan and professional counterparts. The lowest achievers in numeracy and literacy were the most likely to participate, and rates were much higher for pupils planning on undertaking vocational training rather than further education.

What this suggests is that workplace learning programmes can open doors for pupils who struggle with aspects of the secondary curriculum and do not aspire to university education. This is an especially important finding in relation to youth unemployment for the less academically able, although the low rates of participation in workplace learning mean caution should be taken when applying the conclusions of this research more broadly.

Work experience and work placements in secondary school education