There are few fond memories I have of my Sheffield secondary school.
I just didn’t warm to it, found the whole experience stressful and alienating, something that I had to get through to take me to the college I wanted to study at. I can pick out a couple of memorable trips and a few great teachers that inspired me, but most of it was mundane, troubled by bad behaviour and tainted by crumbling buildings.
That was a long time ago, but one week I can look back on more fondly than most of the others is the hard graft I put in during my Monday to Friday of work experience. It took place in Year 10, there was a lot of build up and excitement about it and in the process I learned a lot about the world of work.
The main feeling I can remember is getting home at the end of the first, tiring day after putting a real shift in, falling asleep in front of the TV and my parents laughing at my introduction to the reality of work.
As far as preparing me for my future career, the work experience week was useless; but it did teach me a thing or two about getting on with other adults, customer service and earning a living. Most importantly, it steered me away from the retail management career I thought I wanted to embark upon – work experience is a powerful weapon to inform what are wrong choices and well as confirm the right ones.
Seven years after working in the shop and being visited by my tutor to monitor my performance, I started teaching in a school – this time visiting my own form on their own work experience placement. The parameters for the week’s experience had changed – gone were the days of kids arranging weeks in random places; it had to be linked specifically to the GCSEs they were doing, which was fair enough, I guess.
Fast forward another few years to the school I now work in, and the one I previously worked in, and there is no work experience. Time is too precious, it seems. We don’t want students being out of school at the end of Year 10 and missing a whole 25 lessons of GCSE preparation in order to get an insight into the working world. Where would the benefit of that be for the school?
Headteachers are only interested in addressing what they’re accountable for – getting the good GCSE results is way more important than letting kids have the luxury of sampling a career. And so in most schools, Year 10 work experience is a thing of the past. Some pupils really need work experience because they are not coping with the academic nature of modern system. They are likely to go and get a job when they are old enough to leave education and they need to have a full range of work experience options open to them to help them may a decision about what line of work to pursue.
It’s a sorry state of affairs that sees few students offered this kind of experience, and one that reflects how much our schools have become exam factories. All credit is due, then, to the people behind the Big Picture Learning School in Bentley, Doncaster, which will see a small group of young people learning in the classroom and doing work experience several days a week.
The new £1.8 million project will be a welcome boost for the town and benefit children for whom school just isn’t working – those who are not thriving in an academic environment and have very low attendance rates.
But put those kids in a working environment where they are doing practical work they are responsible for, and many will start to thrive in a way that just wouldn’t happen in the traditional school block. Whereas previously it looked like the school system was failing these children, now it is set to provide them with a life-changing boost. My guess is that the limited places at this school will be over-subscribed and capacity will need to be rolled out elsewhere – especially because the places are for those as young as 11.
Sitting ten GCSE exams is not for everyone, and this move is a small but significant early step to having a more inclusive education system. Good luck to all children who will attend and all the teachers running it.