Work experience is 'transformative', says PM. So why did he allow Gove to make it non-mandatory?

Janet Downs's picture

The Prime Minister’s right: work experience for school pupils can be 'transformative'. But Michael Gove, ex-Education Secretary, said schools didn’t have to provide it. Now the PM’s complaining in his speech about life chances yesterday that work experience doesn’t happen for many pupils. He says the Government will issue advice about using work experience more creatively. This brings a sense of deja-vu to teachers involved in the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) over 25 years ago. The PM rightly wants employers to help schools deliver careers education and guidance (CEG) but he makes a mistake in assuming employers alone can provide it. Their support is essential, yes, but employers aren’t career professionals and cannot be a substitute for high-quality CEG embedded in the curriculum. £1b will be allocated to the National Citizen Service (NCS) over four years, the PM announced. NCS is a four-week, extra-curricular experience offered to 15 -17 year-olds. It costs schools nothing to participate: pupils pay £50 and bursaries are available. The PM wants NCS to cover 60% of pupils by 2021. It’s an interesting development, endorsed by Brian Lightman, ASCL General Secretary and NCS Patron. The PM’s wide-ranging speech covered more than education. But many of his education claims are misleading. For example, ‘we’ fought a ‘battle’ to establish phonics, he said. But phonics was already embedded in English schools. The ‘battle’ comprised the introduction of phonics screening and providing matched funding for purchasing Government-approved synthetic phonics materials – matched funding which schools were slow to take up. And it appears the PM hasn’t read the report commissioned by the Department for Education which found while teachers were positive about phonics they were combining it with other methods. ‘…there are, today 1.3 million more children in good or outstanding schools today, compared with 2010,’ the PM trumpeted. But as FullFact noted, while the figure of 1m+ was correct, the rise in the number of such schools was ‘partly due’ to inspection changes. Inadequate schools which converted to academies were also removed from the data until they had been re-inspected. It should be remembered that it’s in the primary sector where academies are in the minority that the proportion of good or outstanding schools has risen. This is not the case in the heavily academized secondary sector where the proportion has remained the same. Correlation isn’t causation, of course, but it rather undermines the Government’s case that academization is essential for improvement. The PM paid tribute to Tiger Mothers whose ‘battle hymn is all about: work, try hard, believe you can succeed, get up and try again.’ The PM’s language is telling – it likens parenting with war. It might sometimes feel like that to parents coping with screaming toddlers or bolshy teens. But Tiger Mother philosophy appears to be based on the belief that parenting relies on applying unrelenting pressure. Approval and affection are withdrawn if children don’t achieve top marks. The PM, however, is a fan. He said Tiger Mothers’ attitude was ‘the precise opposite of an “all must have prizes” culture that permeated our schools under the last government.’ He’s obviously forgotten the ‘last government’ was a Coalition led by him. We will encourage more sport, said the PM. He claimed it was ‘one of the extra-curricular activities most associated with high academic achievement.’ Not so, according the much-praised Education Endowment Toolkit: Participation in sports does not straightforwardly transfer to academic learning.’

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Roger Titcombe's picture
Tue, 12/01/2016 - 14:14

All of the schools in which I taught from 1975 until I retired in 2003 had two weeks work experience in KS4. Janet was right that it was a compulsory element of TVEI in the 1970s and 80s.

How was it lost?

It was always transformative if only in confirming the careers and jobs students were NOT interested in. I can recall many examples where work experience was truly inspirational for students.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 12/01/2016 - 14:35

Gove was influenced by the Wolf Report which said work experience had outlived its usefulness, was prohibitively expensive (based on the views of some heads) and was, in any case, often not in the work place but confined to ‘work-related’ activities in school.

She also damned work experience as being one week of clock watching for many pupils.
But that’s where proper collaboration between schools and employers comes in so employers know what’s expected and teachers supervise pupils on work experience. So, rather than argue for poor-quality work experience to be improved, she appears to have damned it.

And now the PM is complaining. But once something’s been dismantled it’s difficult (although not impossible) to build up again. 25 years ago we upgraded the standing of work-related education including work experience and CEG thanks to TVEI. It’s catastrophic that this good work has been allowed to wither.

Pamela Forrester Spall's picture
Tue, 12/01/2016 - 16:16

It is important. I taught in the F E sector, and many of the students had made their choices as a result of work experience. Unfortunately this is another example of this Government not knowing what is going on from one day to the next. Perhaps they lack 'work experience'.

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