Next week my elder son will not be going to school. Instead, he will be spending five days in an office as part of his school’s work experience programme. Whilst the idea behind this scheme is commendable, in practice it seems to benefit those students whose parents can organise a suitable placement for them. I wonder what lesson we are teaching our children when it is demonstrated to them that those who already have influential contacts within the world of work get the most interesting opportunities, leaving the rest to cope with what is left as best they can.
Perhaps my views have been unfairly skewed by my own, limited experience. Last year my daughter had to go through the process of finding a company willing to take her for this week of work. She followed the instructions given by the school and searched the database of companies supposedly willing to take students on. She made her initial applications through this system for the positions that best matched her interests, but received no response. When she was advised that some of the companies may have withdrawn from the scheme and she would need to apply to others, the database would not support the change. The application process that had initially looked well thought out and straightforward did not, in reality, work.
From talking to friends with children in the same year group it became obvious to me that parents were circumventing the school’s processes and sorting out placements for their children within their own workplaces or those of family members and friends. These children were being offered a week with computer games designers, journalists, accountants and sports coaches; all of interest to the individual students. School was more than happy to accept these placements, subject to health and safety checks. The paperwork required did make me wonder why any companies were willing to take the students on. I wondered how many favours were being called in by parents in influential positions.
My personal view was that getting the job was as valuable an experience as doing the job, and I was reluctant to become involved. I also felt that my daughter should be able to travel independently to and from her place of work, which necessitated a direct and regular public transport link, thus further limiting her choice. My view was not popular; school became more and more irate as she failed to organise her own placement. Her numerous phone calls to companies on the database led nowhere.
With just a couple of weeks to go and no placement sorted my daughter was threatened with a week of emptying bins around her school. This looked to me like a punishment more than a valuable week of work. At the last minute, a split placement was found for her which required a uniform that we were expected to provide. We paid for this, and her travel expenses, allowing her to spend two days in a publishing house and three days as a waitress in a coffee shop. The process was frustrating, the implementation costly, the benefit negligible. I know that other children enjoyed their week of work so do not condemn the scheme. However, I was not impressed either with the expectations of the school or the lessons learnt by the students about how one gets a job.
My son had observed his sister’s experience so was aware of the limitations of the school’s application process. He experienced the same issues with the database not working, companies he rang not having places to offer and school becoming more and more annoyed at his inability to secure a placement. Once again, at the last minute, he came back with some options for us to agree to. Unbeknown to the school, the placement suggested was at the company where my husband currently provides his services.
As the contact listed was known to my husband, it was he who made the initial approach. He was told that, although no placement had been offered (again), they were happy to take his son. We were doing just the thing that I had been trying to avoid; showing my child that nepotism gets you in. Suddenly it was all so easy; we were not going to turn this down.
My son will spend a week in an IT department gaining an insight into the sort of work that interests him; it is a great placement and school is delighted that we have sorted it out. It seems that everyone is happy except for me. It may be the way things work in the real world, but I am uncomfortable with the lesson it teaches my son.
When I was a student I gained work experience by getting a part time job. I learnt about the application and interview process, the discipline required to hold down a job that plenty of others would be willing to do if I quit, the tediousness of repeated tasks and the need to be always polite and responsive to customers and colleagues. I needed the money so I did each job to the best of my ability.
I know that there are plenty of students who are in the same position today. They compete with others for the low paid, part time work available in shops and fast food outlets; they give up their evenings and weekends to hold down these sought after jobs and earn their spending money. To me, this seems to be a more realistic and useful experience than being handed a role by mum or dad.
I know of many older students who wish to be doctors or nurses and volunteer in hospitals to gain an insight into a job they may wish to pursue. Likewise, summer jobs in an accountants or lawyers office for those who aspire to these disciplines make sense before final decisions about degree courses are made. All the young people I know who have made the most of these opportunities have had parental contacts as well as the get up and go to sort out the placements for themselves. Nepotism is alive and well.
If I were able to exert any influence then I would not hesitate to help my children. I guess that I just feel uncomfortable with school promoting such practices. Our young people will have enough problems gaining a foothold in whatever occupation they choose to pursue without learning so young that their qualifications, aptitude and attitude are not always enough. Opportunities are not always offered equally, real life is not always fair. I am not comfortable, though, with fostering such cynicism at fifteen.
I hope that my son does derive some benefit from his week of work; that he enjoys the experience of learning how an IT office operates and the jobs available in this environment. The idea behind work experience is sound. I remain uncomfortable that it seems to benefit those who already have so many advantages the most.