In defence of KS4 work experience

A growing trend at the moment is dedicated funding for provision, run by external agencies but through schools and in conjunction with them, being withdrawn to be followed by a message from the top “Well, you’ve got the money, if you want to keep it, you can pay for it” It happened more prominently with Connexions but it has also happened with organisations that assist schools organise Key Stage 4 work experience. Funding that previously paid for Education Business Partnerships all over the country to facilitate the bridges between schools and business and fulfill the necessary health & safety and legal barriers to work experience suddenly vanished from sight.

Schools have the money,” we were told. “If they want the service, they can pay for it,” said the guidance. “Freedom for Head teachers to make the decisions,” announced the press release. Of course, no money was allocated to this freedom so it wasn’t really a freedom. Heads, faced with the choice that asks them to pay for a service they had always previously got for free, are likely to retract to covering bases they need to cover or provision with a clear evidence base of the impact on results.

And work experience is neither of those. Or at least extremely difficult to prove that it is. Sure, I’ve done pupils surveys once they return to school after work experience which show how much they valued their experiences but this still may not convince cash strapped Heads with the need to prioritise funds to league table boosting intervention.

More and more of the rhetoric around 14-19 pathways is that we need to focus on a core curriculum right up until 18 and any activities which allow learners to focus on specific areas should either come after that or only be for students who have made the decision to study at specific institutions such as University Technical Colleges. Unfortunately, it feels more and more that work experience has been deemed to be one of those ‘narrowing’ activities. Which is strange as employers consistently advocate that producing school leavers with experience of the work place and all of the associated soft skills should be a core goal of the education system.

This report is full of that message:

A few of the positives of work experience in Year 10:

  1. We’ve got two current Year 11’s who, with a fair wind, should start in apprenticeships at the firm they did their work experience at when they leave us. They took their chance and made enough of a positive impression on their placements that both businesses have been in touch with the school and sound very positive that it will happen. Fingers crossed.
  2. It leads to more work experience and wider networks. Over the summer holidays and in the Autumn half term break in Year 11 we regularly have students continuing to go to work at their ex placement to learn new skills.
  3. It’s a cliché but for a few every year (mostly boys interesting in vocational or trade based careers) it is a real motivator. They come back into school suddenly aware of why the subjects we’re teaching them and the grades they will get are important.
  4. Or, for able but coasting students, it’s a look into the abyss. A few years back a very able young lady spent two weeks shifting heavy boxes around the massive freezer out the back of a local Iceland. She HATED it. Every minute of it felt like it was destroying her soul but she stuck at it. I know this because I read her diary (they all write a diary of the two weeks) and it was the most amazing piece of writing. Like a pean to the quiet misery of the working man, she wrote how the experience had inspired her to use the most of her intelligence and get working at school so that the insight into a working life she saw then, did not become her own future.
  5. It introduces them to a world where people can fail. The Head of the school featured in the Educating Essex program had a great phrase, “we are a no fail organisation.” He didn’t mean it in the “prizes for all” sense that politicians can sometimes twist that ethos into but in the sense that for every student we must find what success means for them. Teachers must always look to positive to encourage their students and give them yet one more chance to build their own version of success piece by piece. Year 10 seems a very good point to me to give them a small insight into the world awaiting them where the patience, encouragement and security afforded them are values to be sought and cherished, not routinely expected.

But still, all of this needs to be quantitatively assessed to prove it’s worth. With the forthcoming improved destinations measures for schools it will be very interesting to note if a Key Stage 4 offer of work experience is a factor in improving outcomes for students.

Footnote: None of this is to say that the traditional two week block of work experience in the summer term is still the best way to offer these opportunities. The offer of KS4 work experience has a chance to change with the array of forthcoming changes to KS4 assessment. Some of those potential models were briefly discussed in a recent Education Select Committee hearing – Q22 here:



  1. Very interesting piece, thank you. It is salutary to look at what has happened in higher education – a growing focus on destinations data over the last 10 years has exploded this year now that it’s availability is wider through key information sets, and it’s impact on potential students decisions will have real financial implications. It’s focused minds and created a fair amount of destination hysteria. The trouble is that so many of the things we think will make a difference are not proven. work experience, however, does have an evidence base.

    Will the same trajectory happen in schools too?

    1. Thanks for your comment Gill – I think it’s inevitable that, over the next few years, school destination data will be as readily available and as clearly displayed as for Universities. What I’m less sure or convinced by is that, like you say, how the interpretation of that data will help parental choice in the school they choose for their child or assist Heads in designing the provision they offer students. There’s a danger Work Experience for pre 16 students may well become the norm for UTC’s & Studio schools only because of financial pressures. So the impact work experience has on destination measures may become a moot point for the majority of schools. The evidence base for work experience really needs to shout out loud and soon.

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