Richard Evans is the Chairman of the CIPHE’s Education and Training Group. In this issue of ETM he considers the implications of the Wolf Review in relation to work experience programmes for 14-16 year olds.

The importance of work experience programmes

It is irrefutable that work related learning (WRL) is an essential part of any vocational curriculum irrespective of level. WRL can take a number of forms e.g. work shadowing, work sampling, work experience/placement or sandwich programmes. The urgent need to improve the quality and status of technical and vocational qualifications depends critically on a curriculum that is balanced and integrates theory, practical and effective work related learning and equally important that it is properly managed. The points raised below are important for all technical and practically orientated subjects, including plumbing and allied industries. The earlier a person is aware of the nature of the profession the better.

One of the most disappointing aspects of the recent Wolf Review was the recommendation that WRL should not be a statutory requirement for 14-16 year olds. Equally sad was that the government endorsed that recommendation and removed the funding from schools that has been successful in developing education business partnerships over the past few years. This decision is consistent with others of the government as it continues to narrow the curriculum and heavily prescribe and proscribe areas of it creating a bland and sanitised offering to the majority of 14 to 16 year olds. I find the decision perplexingly paradoxical when the government now seems committed to strengthen post-16 vocational programmes including appren- ticeships. Evidence shows that stronger links between the education sectors and the world of work are valuable on a number of counts including:

  • Comprehensive strengthening of links between education and work and teachers, employers and professional bodies such as the CIPHE.
  • WRL programmes often create effective and lasting partnerships between schools, FE colleges and local employ- ers which again improve students’ knowledge of post-16 opportunities.
  • Countering the often made accusation that the two sectors do not understand each other; such partnerships also helps to allay mutual suspicions between the sectors.
  • That the various forms of work place- ment/shadowing/experience/sampling greatly assist learner decisions about post 16 education and work opportunities.
  • WRL programmes help to strengthen the careers information, advice and guidance (CIAG) systems in schools
  • The statutory requirement has certainly helped to develop education/business partnerships that lead to a wider range of activities; these help schools and employers bring students to a closer understanding and contact with the reality and vitality of different kinds of businesses and occupations.

Anyone who has worked in the school and college sectors knows that very often students have career or further/higher education aspirations that are unrealistic and the opportunity to experience or observe that occupation via a WRL programme can confirm or counter that intention.

Surprisingly a number of commentators have welcomed the decision to remove funding for WRL programmes, even though this is at odds with the apparent government commitment to review and reform vocational education and training pre and post 16. These commentators see the removal of the statutory requirement as a positive development because it reduces the government intervention in schools, but I fear even if this is true, the decision will significantly weaken the fundamental importance of WRL at Key Stage 4. It will weaken CIAG programmes and most certainly cause a regression in education business links and partnerships, undoing positive developments of the past decades. Key Stage 4 should be about providing learning opportunities and experiences that help students decide on which route they should pursue post-16 e.g. the so-called academic or vocational pathway.

Sadly the current school educational reforms are reinforcing and perpetuating the myth that the best route is HE and degrees. The messages from ministers and policy makers are contradictory, even paradoxical: they want on one hand to rebalance the economy and place greater emphasis on apprenticeships and vocational disciplines and yet propose a significant retrenchment to a narrower core curriculum for 14 to 16 year olds. The country urgently needs to increase numbers of students pursuing technical, commercial and vocational programmes, especially at the higher levels and reduce the continuing academic drift, which is being encouraged by the coalition government.

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