Teenagers are missing out on vital work experience because of school and employer fears about health and safety and safeguarding, MPs have warned.
Research shows that the more work experience and careers advice school-age pupils have, the more likely they are to get good-quality, skilled jobs afterwards.
But fears have been raised that current provision is not good enough.
“All the bureaucracy around arranging work experience needs to be reduced,” said Robert Halfon, former chairman of the Education Select Committee, who has just been appointed minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education. “It shouldn’t be the computer says ‘no’.”
The select committee is holding an inquiry into careers education in England’s schools and Halfon wants to see a UCAS-style website for further education, skills and apprenticeships, which links up employers and schools for visits and work experience.
“At the moment there are so many organisations offering careers advice; it’s like a Ben-Hur movie, a cast of thousands. Yet we still do not know the difference they are having on the outcomes,” he said. “There is a lot of money being spent, being replicated and duplicated, yet our skills are still bad and there is very little evidence to show these organisations are actually delivering.”
Under Department for Education statutory guidance, schools and colleges must meet eight benchmarks around careers education, including having a careers programme in place, linking the curriculum to jobs and careers, giving pupils encounters with employers and employees and arranging work experience. Under the new Baker Clause, schools must also ensure that pupils get access to further education colleges and organisations that provide technical training and apprenticeships.
While a wide range of career-related activities is happening in schools, including sessions with a careers adviser, careers fair and links made in lessons to possible careers, parents are not convinced it is high enough quality or related to young people’s ambitions.
Concerns have been raised that opportunities offered by some schools are too sporadic, with teenagers on work experience sent to stand around in clothes shops or make tea in offices.
In a recent survey of UK pupils by the Sutton Trust education charity, 36 per cent reported that they had not taken part in any careers-related activities.
Nearly half of 17- and 18-year-olds said they had received a large amount of information on university routes during their education, compared with just one in 10 who say the same for apprenticeships.
Less than a third of pupils in Year 13 said they had completed work experience, although this figure would have been depressed by the pandemic.
Some schools argue that funding is too limited to deliver first-class careers education and guidance. Careers leaders in secondaries are often classroom teachers with a range of other responsibilities.
But according to experts giving evidence to the education committee inquiry, schools’ “super-sensitivity” about safeguarding is having a chilling effect on work experience.
“Schools feel very insecure and they worry about it; if there were an incident, how they would be able to prove that they had tried everything to mitigate that and to manage risk?” said Alice Barnard, CEO of the Edge Foundation, which promotes skills education. “I do think that this makes them over-cautious. You see that with school trips and outings. There is this real fear of letting pupils out if they feel that they cannot risk-assess every element.”
One school refused to send pupils to the House of Commons on work experience unless every person who would be in contact with the young people had Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, said committee member Dr Caroline Johnson MP. She compared the situation unfavourably to her work experience in a hospital at the age of 14.
“I went into a maternity ward. I fed babies on the neonatal unit. I watched twins being delivered,” she said. “The opportunities for work experience today have become narrower and narrower.”
Professor Tristram Hooley, from Derby University, said that a system in which thousands of schools were trying to arrange work experience with thousands of employers was inefficient.
“There is a very big question about whether schools should have sole and exclusive responsibility for the delivery of work experience,” he said. “First, the practicalities of every school chasing every business in its area can be a nightmare for both the schools and local businesses. There is a strong case to be made for some kind of brokerage between those two.”
One organisation, Career Ready, does just that by linking schools to employers and has made a real difference to the career opportunities of thousands of teenagers.
The social mobility charity currently supports more than 1,500 young people in more than 400 schools across the UK with careers education and work experience. In partnership with 1,000 employers and 2,500 volunteers, it delivers a targeted programme of four-week, paid internships, mentoring, workplace visits and skills masterclasses for young people.
The opportunities for work experience today have become narrower and narrower
Sian Robertson, Career Ready director of programmes, said it had the expertise to overcome perceived health and safety barriers to work experience.
“Quality work experience can and should go hand in hand with student safety. But it’s about making it more straightforward and removing the barriers that may come up at both sides,” she said. “At Career Ready, we work with hundreds of employers and schools every year to do this. We provide information and best practice on a range of requirements – including payroll, onboarding, health and safety, and safeguarding – as well as guidance on how to make it a high-quality experience that enables young people to develop the skills employers are after.”
It is a service valued by employers, as well as schools and students. A spokesman for the private clients division at St James’s Place Wealth Management said the company had hosted more than 70 Career Ready interns and recruited over 30 of them to full-time roles.
“As well as the genuine commercial benefits we have experienced from engaging with the Career Ready programme, perhaps the real success should be measured in the opportunities created for young people to show what they can do, which in some cases have been transformational,” he added.
Research shows that it is often the most disadvantaged pupils who miss out on work-experience opportunities, a situation that Tokunbo Ajasa-Oluwa, CEO of Career Ready, says must be tackled.
“Quality work experience is critical in helping young people develop the practical skills and attitudes they need to make the journey from education to employment,” he said. “Yet for many, especially those from under-represented backgrounds, it's an opportunity they miss out on. That's why we're calling on employers to invest in future talent by providing local students with work experience."