Last month the British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) called for the introduction of compulsory pre-16 work experience for students in England's schools. It said that work experience for young people should be a "national priority". The call came following the publication of the BCCs annual business and education survey, which polled over 3,500 employers. The survey found that 79% of employers believed work experience to be the most important activity to equip young people with the relevant workplace skills.
The BCC said that the government had been wrong back in September 2012 to remove compulsory work experience from schools*. Some of the teaching organisations agreed. The NUT said the government had been wrong to downplay the importance of work experience, whilst the NAHT - the headteachers' union - said it supported the business community's call to make work experience available all young people. They were right to do so. Work experience programmes have been shown to be highly effective for young people. Back in 2012, the Educaction and Employers Taskforce found that young people who had 4 or more work experiences whilst at school were 5 times less likely to be not in education, employment or training.
Despite employer and union support it seems unlikely the government will seek to introduce a compulsory work experience scheme anytime soon. Not only because the government has prioritised a broadly knowledge-based rather a skills-based curriculum - alongside a qualification system and Ofsted inspection framework to match - but because it believes work experience is more important for the 16-19 age group. For pre-16 students, it has instead turned its attention to improving careers guidance, the latest development being the recently launched Careers and Enterprise Company, the aim of which is to support better links between schools and employers.
However, whatever direction government policy takes, the publication of BCCs survey serves as a timely reminder of the value not just of block work experience placements, but 'work experiences' more generally. Though work experience programmes have historically been extremely popular with schools and students, they are just one method amongst many - including mentoring schemes, enterprise projects and company visits - to help inspire young people about the world of work and develop much needed skills and abilities.
Technology can play a huge role here, and high-quality video conferencing (VC) in particular. VC is not just a communications tool. It has the potential to do so much more. When used effectively it can facilitate some incredible employment-related learning experiences for young people. Whether it be helping an environmental scientist to report from the Australian outback, a marketing director speak from a FTSE100 company boardroom, or an engineer demonstrate robotics from a car-assembly line, high-quality VC technology can bring these experiences live and direct to any classroom in the world. And what's more, schools, colleges and universities in the UK can already do this through the Vscene booking service through JISC.
Technology cannot of course replace the valuable face-to-face experience of learning alongside work colleagues in real situations, even if it happens to only be in short periods and you happen to only be 15. But high-quality VC does afford schools the opportunity to provide whole class experiences to either complement or enhance work experience placements, whether they take place pre or post-16, or both.
*The government did not in fact scrap work experience, but an entitlement for students at Key Stage 4 in England to10 days of what was known as 'work-related learning'. The entitlement was introduced in 2004 by the then Labour government and removed by the coalition government in 2012. Work experience programmes were the most common method used by schools to meet the statutory entitlement.