The Knowledge

How can we improve access to quality work experience?

New research reveals stark inequalities in access to work experience and success factors for closing the gap, explain Elnaz Kashef and Will Millard

New research reveals stark inequalities in access to work experience and success factors for closing the gap, explain Elnaz Kashef and Will Millard

9 Jan 2023, 5:00

Work experience is a key component of careers education, yet it is often challenging to deliver due to barriers including teachers’ limited time and an over-reliance on families’ own networks.

Speakers for Schools recently uncovered that students in private education were twice as likely to access multiple work experience placements. They also uncovered the positive and material impact work experience can have on students’ outcomes, including salary potential and essential skills. Despite this, there has been a decline in participation over the past decade.

These findings underpin Speakers for Schools’ new campaign to make work experience a universal right for state-educated students, and to establish a cross-sector partnership to implement it, so that we can break away from models of the past.

To inform this campaign, Speakers for Schools commissioned research consultancy, SQW to produce a rapid review of the international literature looking at the models of work experience in use in other countries.

The research identifies success factors that help ensure work experience is effective. These includes:

Preparation, support, and reflection

Some students are unable to make the most of placements, or are put off doing work experience altogether, because they feel unprepared. Schools have a role in preparing students by helping them learn about the type of organisation and sector they will experience. More generally, schools can help students understand suitable workplace etiquette and behaviours.

Afterwards, reflecting on their experience can help students draw links with longer-term aspirations. In France, for example, work experience is compulsory, and students compile a report detailing the lessons they learned after completion.

Placement choice and design

One way of encouraging students to engage with work experience is to align it with pre-existing interests. However, work experience also has the potential to broaden students’ horizons by looking beyond their immediate interests. Schools and careers leaders have a role in supporting students to explore their options. Placements need a clear structure, ideally involving different activities, helping students develop new skills and hone existing ones.

 Staffing and networks

Having a staff member who leads on the logistics and administration of work experience can increase its status in schools while minimising the burden placed on class teachers for its organisation. Many countries – ours included – tend to rely on students’ parents’ connections when arranging placements. However, this reliance entrenches inequality of opportunity. Therefore, improving links between schools and employers could support better and more equitable access to quality work experience across the board.

Additionally, the research highlights many challenges of delivering meaningful placements. These include:

  • Students’ fear of the unknown reducing take-up, often due to a lack of confidence or understanding of its value.
  • Schools’ concerns over work experience taking up curriculum time and negatively affecting students’ exam grades.
  • Employers’ feeling that work experience is burdensome and overly bureaucratic.
  • Logistical barriers for schools in areas that have poor transport connections or less vibrant local economies.

In British Columbia, students earn credits for completing work experience during their final years at school, with flexibility in the timing and duration of placements.

In some other countries, work experience is mandatory and formally embedded in the school curriculum, such as in Finland, France and Norway.

SQW’s review shows we do not need to go back to the traditional models of delivery and definitions. There are alternatives to this approach that are innovative, flexible, cost-effective and better suited to employers’ needs.

We now need a collective push to ensure every young person can access meaningful and engaging work experience. To achieve this, Speakers for Schools believes we need continued research to understand what works, alongside cross-party political support and buy-in from educators and employers. Technology and third-party organisations are part of the solution, possessing the ability to remove some of the burdens facing schools and businesses.

Other countries’ approaches to work experience give us some ideas for how we can ensure that all young people in England are better prepared for the world of work.

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