Thursday, 14 April 2011

Learning for Jobs: relevance for secondary schools

“I don’t need your *** exams; I don’t need your *** school. My dad’s got a stall at the market, I already work with him whenever I can, and that’s what I’ll do as soon as I can get out of this place.”
That was a 16 year old pupil at a school I taught at in Peckham, south London, around 1983.
“No problem, all I’ve got to do is get to university and my Dad’s got a place for me in the company.”
That was a 16 year old pupil in, let’s say, another European city at a private school some years later.
The attitude is the same, and equally unfortunate. I often wonder about the young Londoner. What was his Plan B for when trade in the market stalls declined? What high level skills could he offer to prospective employers when his dad sold up his stock and went to work in a pub?
I also think of the second young man, especially after reading in the business press that his father’s company has been the subject of a takeover by a multinational firm who have replaced local staff with qualified executives from around the world.
These 2 students, at least, never got into the 3G generation of work attitude.
I have just read the Synthesis Report of the OECD Reviews of Vocational Education & Training, published in 2010, and available at:,3746,en_2649_39263238_43736957_1_1_1_1,00.html
The report refers to work experience and apprenticeships in VET, but I think it has a number of relevant points for Secondary education as well. I am especially interested as I have been involved in arranging a Workshadowing programme for Year 11 (10th Grade) students at different schools, and this has always been a great success.
The Foreword of the OECD report includes the comment: “Those graduating from vocational programmes need to be equipped not just with the skills that will get them their first job, but also with the broader capacities for learning on and off the job that will support career development in a labour market undergoing rapid evolution...”
I think this applies not just to VET students, but to all students, including those who will follow highly academic courses. The broader capacities for learning are essential for all our students, and workplace experience can help prepare them in their acquisition.
The report identifies several kinds of Workplace Learning:
Job Shadowing, Service Learning (voluntary work), Internships, Apprenticeships, Employee Training and Informal learning through Part-time work. (p.106)
Work experience is an excellent form of careers guidance. As the report says: “Through such experience young people can be introduced to some of the choices they will face in their professional and learning pathways.” (P. 85) In the United States, this sort of experience is called Career Exploration. I like that expression as it neatly sums up one aspect of work experience.
Work experience is one more way of limiting social disadvantage. If school and other agencies arrange experiences which introduce students to new experiences, we increase the potential for social mobility. The report explains that reliance on parents for careers advice can be limiting: “... may also tend to reinforce existing social disadvantages since, for example, poorly educated parents may not be in a position to advise their children on the full range of career options which might be open to them”. (p 78). Does that remind you of my student from south London?
The European Union has established a series of skills which it requires all member states to provide in its citizens through their education systems. These skills, or competencies, are recognized as being crucial to providing a base for life-long learning:
“The European framework for key competences
The European framework for key competences for lifelong learning, released at the end of 2006, identifies and defines the key abilities and knowledge that everyone needs in order to achieve employment, personal fulfilment, social inclusion and active citizenship in today's rapidly-changing world.
The framework includes competences in ‘traditional’ subjects, such as mother tongue literacy, numeracy, knowledge of foreign languages, science and IT skills. But it also covers other skills, such as learning to learn, social and civic competence, initiative-taking, entrepreneurship, cultural awareness and self-expression.”
I think there is no doubt that work experience can be an essential element in helping our students to acquire these competencies.
So much for the students: what do employers get out of providing work experience opportunities?
In terms of VET, the report identifies benefits to the employer in Recruitment Benefit and in Productive Benefit. (P.110 & 111). In a period of high employment, it is useful for employers to get to know potential employees in advance, and it gives them the opportunity to select the best candidates in their field: work experience facilitates this. In apprenticeship situations, there can be a Productive Benefit when the young person acquires sufficient skill levels to make a worthwhile contribution in productivity.
In a secondary school situation, can there really be a benefit for the company offering a workshadowing placement? Yes there can. After our first project, when more than 70 students spent between 1 and 5 days shadowing professionals in a wide range of business settings, a Vice President explained to me how fascinating it had been to listen to her senior leaders submit themselves to the discipline of explaining in detail their role in the company in language which a 16 year old could understand. She said it made the company’s commitment in time and organisation really worthwhile.
Additionally, of course, the company increases its notoriety in the community and its reputation. In many cases the contact person for our Workshadowing project was not in Human Resources but in Corporate Social Responsibility: participation in the project became another soft marketing opportunity.
Yes, work experience can help students to acquire those broader skills. Let’s hope it will help them to adopt a positive attitude to work, and to avoid falling into the work habits of the 3G generation: Get there; Get through; Get home.

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