The post-16 skills plan heralds a major change to work experience in the current system.

The government wants college-based technical education programmes to include an entitlement to a one- to three-month “quality work placement” with an employer in an industry relevant to the learner’s study.

Yet as revealed by the Department for Education’s recent consultation, commissioned by the Learning and Work Institute, we still don’t know “what effective practice in work placements looks like”, or “how current work experience may be increased in scale”.

Neither does Ofsted, it would seem, as it is yet to publish any objective measures for judging the quality of work placements, despite its stated aim to focus on them more.

This presents some considerable challenges for colleges. Take our most recent inspection.

Most learners aren’t sure what they want to do

All 16- to 19-year-old students are funded for an individual study programme, which, according to government guidance, should contain “high-quality work experience or work preparation” and can include volunteering or community activities organised by or on behalf of the institution.

In our case, 85 per cent of our students already have part-time paid jobs. Ofsted was dismissive, however, saying learners should be gaining work experience relevant to their core aim. But what is the core aim for a student taking three different A-levels or a range of subjects, sometimes at different levels? Surely transferable skills count in a modern economy?

There is an important question here: why do the government and Ofsted assume that unpaid work experience is more valuable and/or relevant than paid part-time work?

Before the study programme began, I posed a question to a DfE representative at a DfE/EFA roadshow to launch the study programme, in front of an audience of college representatives, asking: “Does unpaid work experience trump paid part-time work?’

The dismissive response revealed a stereotype that assumed young people were likely to be “stacking shelves in Tesco” – suggesting the DfE doesn’t value employment per se as a learning experience.

A paid job focuses the mind and helps youngsters gain employability: a work ethic, punctuality, customer service, team working and essential English and maths. The fact that work may not be “in context” to study doesn’t really matter; they are gaining skills for a range of career options, in a changing world.

Ofsted simply doesn’t know how to measure the impact of work experience

Of course, if a young chef wants to be a chef and nothing else, we’ll help them find a relevant job. In some areas, such as early years, part of the programme will be working in a nursery setting.

But the vast majority of learners aren’t sure what they want to do and many would rather be earning money to buy that new smartphone or save for university than ‘volunteering’ for a work placement. Incidentally, this is the main reason for the low take-up of traineeships: they’re unpaid.

FE Week’s Nick Linford recently asked Paul Joyce, Ofsted’s deputy director for FE and skills, about how inspectors would track work experience in 2017.

Joyce said: “Work experience as part of study programmes is something that inspectors do clearly look at. It’s a very difficult thing to give categorical answers to.”

When asked how Ofsted will highlight ‘inadequate’ work experience, he continued: “Inspectors will certainly look at work experience and work-related learning and in some cases that is having a detrimental impact where that is not being done as well as it could be to contribute to a learner’s overall programme.” This is not clear at all.

The truth is that Ofsted simply doesn’t know how to measure the impact of work experience, and nor can we. Colleges’ spend on planning and assessing work placements varies enormously and, bluntly, we can’t currently tell if the money improves learner experience, outcomes or job prospects.

Ofsted needs to review how it assesses the impact and effectiveness of work experience and the EFA must work out the funded hours that can be ascribed to planning it.

In short, the government’s view that work should be directly related to study between the ages of 16 and 18 is odd. Job skills change over a working life. We need to train young learners with this in mind, not send them down limited pathways that might hamper their career options.

 

Graham Taylor is principal and chief executive at New College Swindon