‘I loved my work experience so much I cried when I left’

Schools are no longer required to provide work experience and where they do, it is often patchy. It can be challenging for schools to find local businesses and employers who are willing and able to provide placements for 15 and 16-year-olds that are relevant and meaningful, and that fit in with students’ career choices.

But many schools also do an excellent job. On a recent visit to Crofton Academy, in West Yorkshire, I learned how some – mainly disadvantaged – young people had gained places on apprenticeships by doing work experience with companies and businesses first. Not only did these placements, delivered as part of ASDAN’s employability qualifications, offer a route to further learning and training, but they almost certainly prevented the teenagers from becoming a NEET (not in education, employment or training) statistic. Being released from normal lessons once or twice a week was motivating, engaging and gave them a purpose in life and, where they might otherwise have played truant from school, they turned up to their placements promptly and regularly.*

The success of Crofton Academy in securing a future for these young people brought to mind my own work experience stint nearly 40 years ago. The concept of sending young teenagers into the workplace was in its infancy in the late 1970s, but for this 14-year-old it made the difference between having a goal to aim for and possibly going off the rails. It was thanks to Mr Kelly, my housemaster at my Catholic comprehensive, noting my growing disenchantment with school that I ended up doing a week of work experience with the local evening newspaper during term-time. For a week I followed photographers and journalists on jobs, took names and made notes, and what I wrote up was compared with the work of the real reporters. (As an aside, the photographer I spent most time with would become a colleague on the London Evening Standard 20 years later.) I loved it so much I cried when I left on the final day.

What did I learn in that week? Simply it confirmed that, as I had suspected, journalism was for me. Suddenly going to school was important, and passing exams mattered. Like the young people at Crofton, I had sampled the workplace and what it had to offer. Messing about and rebelling had lost its appeal because I had found what I wanted to do. There was something empowering about having an ambition to aim for. It was also a masterstroke by the perceptive Mr Kelly, to whom I owe so much.

Peter Bone helped hundreds of pupils at The Fernwood Academy, in Nottingham – an ASDAN centre – gain work experience over many years. The former PSHE and work experience co-ordinator said preparation was vital if students were to get the most out of their placements.

“Typically, we would start preparing and talking about work experience about two or three months before the pupils went out,” he said. “We might do an assembly with some role play on how to deal with certain workplace situations – for example, what to do if you don’t get on with one of your colleagues, or how to deal with the person who won’t let you get a word in edgeways. We wanted the placements to be useful and meaningful and for the students to get the best out of the experience, and not just to spend their time sweeping the floors or making tea. As much as anything it was about developing their personal skills. We discussed how they should dress and behave and, after making contact with their placement, we talked about doing a preliminary visit. Where possible, we tried to match placements with the field of work that interested them but this wasn’t always possible. What was important, though, was that they got a realistic impression of what the workplace was about, as this has a value in itself.”

The ideal work experience placement, Mr Bone said, was one where every day offered something different. A large company, for example, might give the student experience of different departments. “We wanted them to be able to report back on what they had learned and to reflect on what new skills they had picked up,” he added.

“It didn’t always work out the way we had hoped. Sometimes, students didn’t put in the effort to get the best out of their placements, or the provider did not meet expectations or their obligations. But you always hoped that the students pick up some skills and get an impression of what might await them once they leave school.”

*A full article about the work being done at Crofton Academy will be published in the next issue of ASDAN’s Bulletin magazine at the end of April.

Author: Dorothy Lepkowska, Journalist and former ASDAN media liaison consultant

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