National Careers Week 2014 – Day 4 – Work Experience

Whether you are working in Secondary school and have to set up a block placement for a group of children or in a Primary school and want to allow children to experience workplaces for a half-day or day visit, you will rely on local businesses to help you with your task.

In Primary school, any school visit will contain a careers thread and relevant questions will help draw out from the children some ideas about working life. I had the joy of visiting some Northumberland schools where they had this down to a fine art. Topic-based learning is particularly useful for Primary careers work. One example was a school where they were looking at food production from farm to fork. As part of this they visited a farm and a baker’s shop. The Careers opportunities were massive and the culmination of this was that the children planted their own wheat, invited a local artist in to make a clay oven in the school garden, harvested and ground their wheat, made bread in the outdoor oven and then ate it hot in the garden. Those children had the opportunity to meet and speak to a farmer, a baker, a shop assistant, a potter and a chef in just a few weeks. These may or may not have been careers that they were interested in but at least it gave them a clear picture of the pros and cons of each job. This type of activity shows the link between careers and enterprise education really clearly.

As far as a block placement in secondary school is concerned, your school may not wish to go through this process. In that case, it would be a good idea to try to build in some type of business experience in a voluntary capacity. It is worth asking your students if they already do this – you might be surprised. Many young people work at local stables or kennels, have a paper round or run errands for elderly neighbours. Some may be young carers and have experience of taking responsibility for a parent, grandparent or younger sibling. Encourage those who do these things to add their experiences to their portfolio. For those who don’t, try to make links locally for options e.g. in charity shops or care homes.

A vital part of work experience is the preparation that happens beforehand. Despite all the organising, if your students don’t have a grounding in and awareness of work skills, they will be at an immediate disadvantage. I have some horrendous personal experience of this and learned my lesson for future occasions. Don’t just assume that they know how to behave in the workplace. The way they dress, speak to people, their attitude and punctuality are so vitally important. The build up to work experience week must cover all aspects of how things should be in the workplace. It is very different to school and they need to know that!

The big headache comes with the block placement week, if your school does this. Again, I was lucky to have the services of the local Education Business Partnership and they took a huge amount of weight off my shoulders – but it is still a big job. We used to send out all of Year 10 en masse. They were prepared for this event weeks in advance and given a set time to find their own suitable placement. I use the word ‘suitable’ as have had some strange requests in the past. One girl wanted to work with a blacksmith and one in a tattoo parlour. Clearly there are limits to what you can do due to health and safety. Placements in hospitals and police stations are limited and those who fully expected to go into a hairdressers and start perming, cutting and colouring had big shocks ahead. In my experience, students who found their own placements were much happier than those who didn’t.

The process is long and difficult and I used to dread the early morning phone calls to indicate that something went wrong, but on the whole the students gained such a lot from the experience. I remember going to see a girl who was working on the shop floor in Iceland. The Manager pointed me in the direction of the staff canteen. There I found her asleep with her head on the table. She could not believe how hard it was, on her feet, working from 9 o’clock until 5:30. Another looked at me as if I were completely insane when I showed her the details of her placement and she had to work Saturdays.  The issue of insurance and health and safety is massive – and yet another reason why I was delighted that the EBP covered that side of things. They were definitely money well spent!

Of course there were success stories, just as in Primary. One girl went to a local dog grooming parlour, to work on the administrative side of the business. She suggested a better way of keeping digital records and set up the system for the business. They were absolutely thrilled and still use her system today. The business owner said she would have had to pay someone to do that for her and so in that particular case it was clear to see the gains to the student as well as the business.

Even though work experience is a mammoth task to organise, it is well worth the time and trouble. Our students kept a diary each day and noted what they had learned and where they felt they could do better. This was then used in feedback after the placement. Having talked this through, it was then an experience they could add to their careers file.

Once back in school, a good work placement or an engaging school visit can be just the encouragement some children need to raise aspiration and work harder to achieve their goals.

In tomorrow’s blog, we will try to ascertain what makes good careers and guidance.

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