Colleges run their own ‘business’ to allow learners to gain experience and 157 Group executive director Lynne Sedgemore said last week that such ventures could be seen as providing a realistic taste of the workplace. However, Iain Mackinnon says they are too few and far between to offer a viable alternative to experience of a truly commercial environment.

I think 157 Group executive director Lynne Sedgmore struck the wrong note in responding to the government’s new advisory paper on work experience.

In making a case on the rather narrow grounds of protecting the best examples of artificially-created work environments she risks appearing on the wrong side of the argument.

She should, instead, be leading the charge to get high quality experience of work for every vocational learner.

First things first. The government is right to set its sights high, and to ask that every student should experience a realistic work environment.

And colleges and other training providers should say: “We agree — this is a good ambition, and we will join you in helping to achieve it.”

Colleges should step up to the challenge to get a high quality placement for
every vocational student

But Mrs Sedgmore began by seeking to challenge “the myth that colleges cannot provide a true-to-life working environment for learners”.

Of course they can, and do — but this is very much a minority game at the moment, and for the foreseeable future. We need a better answer for the many, not just the few.

I was impressed by what North Herts College told me about the gym which its students run as a successful commercial venture.

I like very much that they not only get a useful BTec qualification, but also the really powerful learning you only get when you experience some of the commercial pressures which are the vital backdrop to every job.

But let’s be clear, learning companies like this one are rare, and likely to remain so.

Too many of what Mrs Sedgmore calls “Realistic Working Environments” (RWE) — and the government describes as “simulated work environments” — are simply not realistic, because students do not face the commercial pressures which shape everyone else’s daily work.

Students obviously need time to try things out and make mistakes, but learning how to build their working speeds to much closer to commercial standards is also part of the task — and a key part of the task in the eyes of employers.

I readily agree that far too much work experience is low quality.

Education Business Partnerships did a great job in showing what’s possible, but too many got sucked into a low level numbers game, and it’s more than time to move on and get the focus on quality.

But we need quantity too, and colleges should step up to the challenge to get a high quality placement for every vocational student.

There should be no disagreement with that ambition. Alison Wolf made the case powerfully. Report after report explains how valuable it is for vocational students to get work experience alongside academic studies.

The argument should be about how we close the gap to get a good placement for everyone, not whether we should try or not.

And we do know it can be done. Fleetwood Nautical Campus, for example, part of Blackpool and the Fylde College, which recently won outstanding status from Ofsted, has an international reputation for its courses for trainee officers for the Merchant Navy.

Every one of them gets a multi-part sandwich course with long periods of ‘sea time’ (ie on-the-job learning) complementing what the students learn in college.

Students use sophisticated (and expensive) simulators too, of course, but there is no substitute for the real thing.

Employers step up, I think, despite the cost, because they know that and because they trust the college to deliver.

It’s imperfect in detail, but a good model. It is realistic to go for a target of 100 per cent — every vocational student getting a high quality experience of work environment with realistic business pressures.

Colleges should step up, accept the challenge and work to make it happen.

Iain Mackinnon, managing director,
Mackinnon Partnership, and former college governor of 14 years