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Making work experience work

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What work experience have you done?

Brad Pitt dressed up as a giant chicken. Sean Connery was a milkman. Orlando Bloom worked at a clay pigeon range. I learned how to laminate, both A4 and A3.

For its often-perceived worthlessness, work experience can be used as a(nother) stick to beat our schools. Anecdotally, it can be unpopular among teachers too: “I’m losing two weeks of teaching time. When am I supposed to get them to complete the controlled assessments?”

The DfE has set out an exciting vision for careers education: To provide all young people with the tools to make the right career choices. Others, though, are calling to take careers advice out of the hands of schools as some schools are accused of pushing their pupils into taking places at their own sixth forms.

Work experience gets the rough end of the stick.

As a teacher I remember calling up companies to seek last-minute placements for my desperate tutees. We tried everywhere, from local debt collection organisations to testing computer games. Inevitably the places were full, and eventually if we did chance upon a space, it was an entirely unsuitable option.

Upon the pupils’ return I would flick through the work experience journals to check the ‘what did you learn?’ section. ‘I don’t want to work in a shoe shop’ was what I found… Strange seeing as Michael was spending the week at the local corner shop. The DfE's plans to provide more tools would be very useful indeed.

Poor old work experience.

Now, imagine a world where work experience actually offered pupils genuine, tangible employability skills. Where they left the placement with shining references and could even achieve qualifications in the process. Where pupils could complete placements alongside the curriculum, rather than in place of it. The work experience nirvana, right?

But this doesn’t have to be a dream. At Spa School, a special school in Southwark which predominantly caters for pupils with autism, it is a reality already.

In the former bursar’s house, you are now welcomed to ‘The School House Cafe’. Here, older pupils, predominantly from KS5, are given the chance to gain employability skills alongside their academic timetable.

Pupils run the café in all areas, from working on the till to taking stock. There is a full-time manager who has professional experience, but otherwise the café is staffed by pupils and supported by a full time teaching assistant (TA). The TA supports the developmental aspects of the experience, such as working with the pupils on communication skills.

[caption id="attachment_8718" align="alignright" width="174"] You wouldn't be thinking this at The School House Cafe[/caption]

Arriving early for a visit to the school to talk about its recent Ofsted inspection, my colleague Rebecca and I were ushered into the café. While the headteacher, Simon Eccles, finished off some meetings, we went to look at the culinary delights on offer. We were served by two pupils who, may I say, made a delicious Americano coffee.

The communication difficulties for some pupils were profound, however each pupil had a chance to address these challenges. One pupil wanted to read a newspaper that had been left on the table, at which we sat. He approached and kindly asked for the paper, and thanked us as we passed it to him. The TA quietly asked him ‘Did you remember to say thanks?’, ‘Of course I did, who do you take me for?’ he replied. Such conversations were clearly the norm and part of the learning process at the café.

While a week shadowing a professional or experiencing customer service can provide some useful learning, the reality is that work experience is likely to be more effective if it is sustained. The café is part of school life and pupils are expected to fulfil their duties as they work towards targets related to independence in their individual education plans. We were struck by how meaningful the work in the café felt to the students.

Members of our school leader service can read about the requirements for work experience in the following article (log-in required): Work experience: requirements and guidance

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