Mention universal work experience to somebody working in a college, and they’ll probably go a little pale. While it is near universally agreed that exposure to the workplace brings great benefits to students, the practicalities of arranging meaningful placements for every student are challenging. And schools and colleges understandably fear that formidable task will fall to them.
All the same, continued concerns over skills shortages have led several organisations (among them, Speakers for Schools, the Federation of Small Businesses and the Labour party) to call for work experience to be made accessible. So we at the Social Market Foundation have spent the last few months exploring how such a policy could be feasible, in a way that would not be too painful for educational institutions.
Concerns with supply
We need to start by recognising where we are. Employer engagement with education is low and has weakened further over the pandemic. Generating enough placements for T level students is already proving tricky. Speaking to career leads and college representatives, there is concern that creating further competition for work experience could make this worse.
We should therefore avoid over-burdening the limited number of employers that currently do provide placements. Without careful planning, universal work experience risks becoming a tick-box exercise, where students are put on any available placement simply to meet the requirement.
This is far from inevitable, though. Handled well, a push for universal work experience could expand the number of employers and placements. To make this a reality, we need investment in brokerage services to support them to sign up more employers to participate in work experience.
Colleges tend to have quite good relationships with local employers, but developing these takes significant time and effort, which all too often is duplicated. Schools, Education Business Partnerships, Career Hubs and dedicated careers services are all trying to build relationships with the same employers. That means the process of engaging employers is less efficient than it should be, and that it is often unclear for employers where to start if they want to contribute.
What would work better is embracing economies of scale and establishing a single point of accountability for local coordination. Employers, educators and careers services would benefit from a single point of contact. As they already have broad geographical coverage, and a majority of schools and colleges are already part of one, we believe that Careers Hubs would be best placed for this role at a local level.
Clearly assigning responsibility for coordinating work experience within an area to a single organisation, such as a Careers Hub, would allow them to get on with the sustained, proactive outreach needed to engage more employers with the education system more broadly. Armed with a full menu of ways to support students, employers would be gradually moved up the ‘ladder of opportunities’ – perhaps starting with presentations and workplace visits, and then working up to short placements, and eventually T levels.
The reduced administrative burden of sourcing placements means that those responsible in schools or colleges can pour their time and resources into supporting students on work experience to make sure they make the most of them. Placements can be appropriately matched and shaped to the students’ needs and interests, and students themselves can be better prepared for them. Not only will colleges avoid competing with each other or with local schools for employer contacts, but they can also coordinate to ensure that placements don’t clash, improving access to opportunities.
Effective, universal work experience also presents a more indirect benefit for colleges: better support to younger students at key stage 4, a group that faces key decisions over their educational futures and careers with often too little understanding of the workplace to make those calls.
In turn, that could be good for colleges, creating a better informed and motivated student body, ready to take on the qualifications that are right for them.
‘Learning from experience: How to make high quality work experience for all a reality’ can be accessed here