Early reports into the efficacy of work placements suggest that they’ll be tough to get right, writes Bill Esmond

The Sainsbury Review’s proposals for technical education, enthusiastically welcomed by government, focus on high-quality work placements as part of every course. The process is limbering up slowly, but research studies, modelling exercises and evaluations commissioned by government are yet to report on how it might work.

There are, however, early indicators from a research report funded by the Gatsby Foundation published last week, exploring models currently used for work-based learning on study programmes. The study was commissioned to find models for securing access to workplace learning, which may end up consuming quite a slice of the additional £500 million budget. After all, a world short on job opportunities for young people is also a world short on work placement opportunities.

Alongside the differences in arranging placements, from well-established schemes with plenty of employer involvement to learners making their own ad-hoc arrangements, other important issues for FE colleges emerged.

Length does not equal quality

Although the length of a placement is central to Sainsbury’s proposals, and much study programme work-based learning is strikingly brief, time spent in the workplace does not directly determine what kind of learning programme takes place. College staff will know that learners on early childhood or health and social care programmes may already be required to spend months in workplaces. But although they learnt about behavioural expectations in these settings, those in the study did not have the same kind of access to specialist, advanced knowledge as those on what will be other future technical routes.

Some “work-based learning” involved no real experience in workplace

If technical education is going to offer advanced skills unavailable in college, workplace learning needs to identify what learning opportunities will be available there.

Workplace learning is not automatic

Learning is not an automatic result of depositing a learner in the workplace. The best examples are built around planned programmes, with access to expertise and learning opportunities that enable students to learn identified skills. These were the product of highly organised liaison between colleges and work organisations, but they also depended on a proactive approach by employers committed to offering the right opportunities.

By contrast, some “work-based learning” involved no real experience in workplace settings; this was a characteristic of creative and media courses we studied, all of which made use of “employer projects” where students worked towards solving a problem set by an employer but colleges provided the technical skills in studio settings. These appeared to better develop technical skills than some work-based programmes, as well as enhancing learners’ confidence and softer skills.

College-workplace integration is essential

The more tutors are directly involved in these processes, the better. In the best-organised examples, staff used what learners had discovered in the workplace to advance their college-based studies. In other areas, work-based learning was seen more as meeting a funding requirement. One programme manager compared his own projects to the token activity at his daughter’s school that “gets her out of their hair for a week”.

In the same way, workplace learning is often carried out in ignorance of college programmes; one workplace trainer eloquently described what she taught but had very little idea how it related to any course requirements. “They get a qualification at the end of it, I think,” she said. It seems unlikely that technical education will provide the expected benefits without greater integration between workplaces and colleges.

Technical education will require much more proactive involvement from staff, rather than simply negotiating satisfactory placements. Of course, this may delay implementation, or restrict technical education to a narrower field than originally envisaged.

A broader question for policymakers is whether the wider institutions exist to support an integrated system on the lines of the UK’s European competitors. While German dual training is sustained by employers’ associations, small businesses, trade unions and the state, the English system remains largely voluntarist despite the levy, benefitting those most able to invest individually in training. But that’s another story.

Bill Esmond is associate professor of learning and employment at the University of Derby