Why the work experience debate matters

By Nicky Smith

It’s easy to get swept up in angry righteousness about education issues. And some people of course, say things just to provoke a response.

By saying “Discriminate against job applicants from Eton,” Justine Greening is using a quick and lazy way to say, ‘think about social issues when selecting candidates for work experience.’

She has indeed provoked a response, and there are lots of interesting discussions around the subject.  My top recommendations, for a bit of balance on this subject are:

Toby Young in the Spectator: “Justine Greening is wrong to pick on Eton

Sajid Javid in the Telegraph ‘Justine Greening has got it wrong. We just need more pushy parents’ (or words to that effect)

Both these discuss the subject from the point of view of children (fair enough) or upbringing (fair enough) or the education system (fair enough.)

The voice which is completely missing from this whole debate is the employer.  Who’s actually providing these work experience places?  Who finds the kids something to do for their week of work experience?  Who fills out the school forms, so they can come, and looks after them when they turn up for work? Who shows them how to hold a pencil?!

Is this suddenly coming across a bit ranty?  It should do!  I’m not alone in my views.

A whole new education system is being developed which is based on having work experience at its core. A report from RM Education describing this new qualification, T Levels, said the following:

“The availability of work placements is the single most important factor that will determine whether T-levels can go ahead either locally, or for that matter at all. “

And here is the crux of the matter, my point:

“Our research shows that over a quarter (27 per cent) of Federation of Small Business members believe that schools and colleges do not acknowledge business considerations and constraints, such as time and resourcing issues, when trying to engage firms in activities like work experience.”

Remember we’re talking about school aged students.  It is massively time-consuming organising meaningful work experience for school students.  I am utterly determined to make it a valuable experience for each and every person who spends time with us, but I can tell you, it can be a soul-destroying business.

I can honestly say that I have had some kids who appear to have a problem holding a pencil. Experiences like that are shattering. For me I mean.  How can a child have such poor skills after so many years at school?  Is it my job to teach them the very, very basics?

We’ve had some work experience school children who were brilliant. Just as an FYI the best and the worst have been from State school backgrounds.

On balance it is just a waste of time for me.  How many businesses can afford to keep wasting the time and good will of colleagues every year on work experience students?

Actually, I will never stop offering experiences and opportunities for young people of all backgrounds to work in our business, because I believe in helping others.

But politicians should stop making lazy remarks about work experience and education. I don’t think it moves things forward.

Nicky Smith is Director and co-founder at Twelve.pr in Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire.   

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