When is experience of the world of work, actually experience of the world of work?

Any business that invests time, staff commitment and funding into careers related activities should be applauded and encouraged by those of us keen to engage. Most engagement activities usually fall into a well versed range of formats of interaction (from p20) that fit with the time and schedule commitments both parties are able to invest so new ideas and resources are always intriguing. This is why I noticed the launch of “The World’s first immersive work experience simulator: The LifeSkills Pod” from Barclays last week.


As a whole, the Lifeskills program is an outstanding corporate effort to offer young people insights into employability. I find the lesson plans very good and adaptable, the site offers applicable advice for young people, the ability to secure actual work experience placements is great and the backing they have received means they have been able to spread the word to parents as well through TV advertising.

The Lifeskills Pod looks like huge fun for students and the launch gained an enormous (for a careers resource) amount of press coverage in national titles such as the Guardian, the local press and digital focused publications. In all of those write ups, alongside the main positive PR message, journalists can’t also help but draw the conclusion that this resource only exists due to the insufficient number of work experience opportunities for students. The Careers leader of the school involved in the launch is quoted as voicing a problem all careers practitioners will be familiar with,

It was difficult to find quality work experience placements for the 270 students in the year group, said Simon Beck, the assistant head teacher of Lister Community school, with some students reporting they only made tea and had not gained any useful skills.

As a result, the school scrapped the work experience placement scheme and replaced it with a world of work week.

which is a fine solution but, ultimately, doesn’t help confront the problem of the mismatch between the demand for work experience and the scarcity of opportunities on offer to young people.

The demand from employers for prospective employees to have work experience completely exceeds the number of employers who actually offer work experience and that is even before the quality of the work experience placements on offer is considered. This conundrum was best highlighted by Sarah O’Connor writing in the FT about the Pod’s launch (for those without an FT log in, a screen shot is here).

The UK Commission for Employment and Skills, a government-funded organisation, surveyed 18,000 employers last year and found that 80 per cent offered no work experience placements to schools. Yet two-thirds said work experience was the most critical factor when they recruit.

At which point we should ask how does the experience of the Lifeskills Pod measure up against the learning opportunities that real life work experience offers and where does it fit in the full range of “experience of the world of work” activities?

Vs actual work experience

In the Pod, students watch pre-recorded video on a TV screen, choose from a multiple choice set of actions to resolve an issue and interact with a large touch screen in a small room for around ten minutes. Many of the learning opportunities we would all recognise from traditional work experience are absent from this, the young person takes no responsibility for planning their journey to work to arrive on time, they do not learn to cope with the tiredness that comes from a longer working day, they do not see how colleagues interact with each other in professional situations, they do not have to adapt their body language to cope with different interactions etc. The feedback from the students in all of the articles indicates that they felt the virtual situations made them think about the professional course of action in each short scenario and is clearly positive but I fear that this does not mean that the experience was substantive enough to qualify as “work experience.” How much value, for example, would a prospective future employer confer to the inclusion of “attended a Lifeskills Pod session” on a CV compared to an actual period of work experience?

Vs “experience of the world of work”

If the Pod does not attempt to realistically mirror work experience, does it then offer students the benefits of experiencing the world of work similar to some of the other activities linked to above? The research from the Education & Employers Taskforce is useful here because it considers all experiences of the world of work and offers the Employer Engagement Cycle as a way of describing those benefits. For example the Pod could offer students the chance to improve their confidence and practice skills desired by employers in a low pressure environment that would enhance their Human capital skills. As the evidence from the Education & Employers Taskforce suggests though, the impact short, episodic, non assessed employer engagement experiences offer is considered to have little benefit to individuals. Where the real benefit from such experience comes from is in the Social and Cultural capital sections. The human networks gained from actual work experience are missing from the Pod experience, there is no individually tailored advice or interactions with older colleagues whose voices are seen as ‘authentic’ and there is no human link made to call back on for a reference or further opportunities later on in the student’s progression.

The media reporting of the launch is reductive but clearly positions the resource as a replacement for work experience rather than an employability resource.


which is over-reaching the gains of the activity and, again, only highlights why such a resource would be needed in the first place, as O’Connor notes in the FT

The simulator is a nifty idea, but it is also a sign that too many employers are doing too little for the next generation.

The use of a range of employer engagement activities to supplement and support work experience is best practice careers work and advocated by all stakeholders in the sector such as the CDI and the Gatsby Foundation. It is the foundation of such initiatives as the London 100 hours challenge and offers both education providers and employers the greatest flexibility to get involved. Within the range of this engagement comes though a responsibility to properly signal what all stakeholders can expect from each activity. Overselling or overreaching the experience, benefits or likely outcomes of a resource or activity is only likely to lead to the perceived ‘gap’ in employability skills widening and stakeholders retracting from those activities which do require significant commitment such as actual work experience.

Which all means the Pod should be considered as a resource much like any other virtual, online careers experience. Used with students alongside a range of other activities (such as in the “world of work” week mentioned above) the Pod is a fantastically exciting resource, but this does not mean it should be seen as a solution for the lack of work experience placements currently offered by UK businesses to schools.


The moving employer bullseye for GCSEs

This years GCSE results have brought forth the usual comment and think pieces about the exact value and worth of exam grades on sign posting a young person’s future success. One of the most important voices in this period to shape the debate is always the CBI, the employer body with the ear of Government and seemingly the widest PR reach.

Their GCSE response this year bemoans, among other things, the removal of speaking and listening from the final English grades and how that, “more must be done to ensure a GCSE pass is an accurate measure of not just how well a young person does in the exam hall, but also the skills they can bring to the workplace.” They also request that, “schools should be judged not only on their position in the league tables, but how well-prepared young people are for life beyond the classroom” acknowledging the power that league tables have on school decision-making. Estelle Morris makes a similar point today in the Guardian,

“On the one hand, we bemoan a culture that only values the things that can be measured and we fret about the pressures placed on “the most examined generation of children”. Yet, on the other, when it is our children or our school, exams are hugely influential on the decisions we make.”

Seemingly this is true not just on the decisions education or parents make, but also on the decisions employers make

We all know the stories of the fantastically successful entrepreneur who left school with only a frayed tie and some crumpled detention slips to their name but, it seems, the odds are severely against these outliers.

Which takes me back to the CBI. Their call this year for more rounded school leavers, equipped with those vital employability skills (and a system that recognises schools progress towards achieving this) would find many agreeing murmurs from the Careers sector (even without mentioning their joint desire to see improvement in CEIAG) but it also shows how their view on exams results is evolving over time.

The 2013 CBI response also had an axe to grind (this time against early entries which brought a quick reaction from the DfE) but did try to bridge the gap between the importance of results and the importance of wider skills,

The plan to make GCSEs tougher, although necessary, is not an end in itself

Going back further, the 2012 CBI response acknowledges how changes in the system were then affecting pass rates but places the importance on attainment and standards,

“Improving attainment in our schools is critical to the future success of our economy and society. Raising ambition and aspiration for all should be the focus of our school system. Creating a thirst for learning and delivering a rigorous, meaningful curriculum is a national priority, which needs to be urgently tackled.”

While in 2011, the response the focus is solely placed on numeracy and literacy skills,

“It’s good to see the proportion achieving a C or above in Maths and English continuing to rise. Being able to show you have good ability in reading, writing and maths is more important than ever and opens the door to work or further study.

“However, too many students are still failing to pass Maths GCSE.

“With the highest number of young people for five years not in education, employment or training, we cannot afford for young people to miss out on basic Maths skills.

While there is a slightly Sisyphean nature to these evolving targets for GCSE exams to hit, now that many of the GCSE and league table reforms enacted by the DfE during this parliament are in place with the support of the CBI this call for a wider skills recognition and greater emphasis on preparation for a working life is a theme that will grow as we move towards the 2015 election (witness Tristram’s Hunt character education focus) and one that should benefit CEIAG in schools.


BITC and Ofsted “Going in the right direction?” roundtable event 14/01/2014

As my school was visited as part of the Ofsted survey into Careers guidance, I was fortunate enough to be invited to attend this event in London this morning jointly hosted by Ofsted and Business in the Community which had the objective of defining the best routes for schools and business to navigate to work together to aid young people’s career decisions and readiness. It was an engrossing morning with contributions from national employers such as BP, Barclays, KPMG and the National Grid, professional bodies such as the CBI and CIPD, Careers sector leaders with a wealth of experience and knowledge such as Keith Hermann and David Andrews, representatives of the FE and vocational skills community, Ofsted and myself and one other school, St Mary’s High School in Cheshunt. The knowledge, commitment and range of ideas in the room on how to find solutions that would enable young people and schools to successfully achieve the benefits to be gained from employer interaction was considered, informed and of the highest standard. I thought I’d share some of the most salient points from the notes I took throughout the presentations and subsequent discussions:

Matthew Coffey – Director FE and Skills Ofsted

Was clear in his belief that destination measures would be a “game changer” for schools and that they would be a decisive lever for change in schools behaviour and attitude towards careers IAG and employability learning.


Points about the robustness & validity of the destination data and how this could lead to encouraging collaboration between providers which would improve careers provision and how, currently, funding mechanisms do not encourage this collaboration.

Karen Adriaanse – Ofsted lead on Careers Guidance & Employability

Summary of the Careers report – even though the media focused on the negative headline statistics there were a “middle band” of schools who were making efforts towards CEIAG provision but were not comprehensive enough or internally evaluated to sufficient a standard to be deemed compliant with the statutory duty. Ofsted have asked the Dfe to be clearer in the forthcoming guidance about a minimum standard of acceptable CEIAG provision.

From the interviews carried out with students as part of the survey Ofsted have a clear idea of the learners point of view of this work (I found this very useful):

What the students liked:

  • initial and follow-up individual interviews with a professional careers adviser
  • targeted online activities to explore some of the ideas presented in assemblies
  • a system for recording their ideas and subsequent research
  • a programme of visits from employers and colleges – not just one-off visits
  • a well stocked careers library, especially for those who felt ill at ease using websites
  • careers guidance as part of the curriculum, especially when the teacher had a good understanding of job opportunities

What the students said they wanted:

  • more information on the full range of courses run by FE colleges and other providers, since not everyone want to do A Levels and go to University
  • a higher profile given to vocational training and apprenticeships to help them make an informed choice
  • visits, presentations or social media pages from former students – one, two, five or even ten years after they had left the school
  • more purposeful work experience and opportunities to find out about careers from employers
  • better links between subjects and careers
  • better guidance on using websites

I’m going to type those bullet points up in a poster and stick it above my computer in my office to remind me whenever I start planning an activity or visit or session.


Contributions from employers asking for gatekeepers in schools – who do they contact? Ian Duffy of BP spoke about a forthcoming Gatsby (?) research document which would, after comparing Careers provision around the globe, offer 8 benchmarks of what good careers work would look like nationally.

Pirandeep Dhillon from the Association of Colleges outlined a vision for local “Careers Hubs” which would offer opportunities for all stakeholders including FE, LEPs, JobCentre Plus, National Careers Service, employers and education to engage with each other, receive  comprehensive notification of the variety of opportunities and routes and find space to build networks which would, in turn, lead to further collaboration and interaction with employers and schools on individual projects.

Nick Chambers – Director Employers and Education Taskforce

Nick outlined that, even with employer engagement, this is still a system that needs impartial and qualified IAG practitioners to aid young people. Also that the fragmentation of the school system over recent years has not helped with the collaboration of provision and can even put off employers from engaging as they are flooded with a multitude of requests that ask them to repeat work and struggle to find gatekeepers with a local overview.


This lead onto a discussion about how large-scale businesses can ensure that the work they do to offer resources does not replicate work already done by competitors in their field and how companies can work together both in and across sectors to offer resources that fulfill needs in schools.

Peter Lambert – Director Business in the Community

Peter had the unenviable task of trying to draw this wide-ranging discussion together to form some guidance that would be equally useful for both large multinational corporations and much smaller SME’s to engage with schools.


Discussions took place around the fact that businesses are also put off as they feel their specific bank of knowledge wouldn’t be suitable for schools as their expertise might not cover the full range of “employability” – at this point the schools were keen to allay these fears and say that, even if it is a specific area of advice the company can offer then this would still be welcomed by the schools. At this point suggestions were made of the need for local and regional brokerage such as the work of (now defunct in some areas) Education Business Partnerships and what role LEPs, Chambers of Commerce and potential Careers Hubs could play in building that knowledge bank of provision and how to access it. The “locality” issue was also discussed in relation to large-scale corporations who work with nearby schools but are unable to expand their work to reach other parts of the country. Plotr was discussed as an example of a solution to this issue.

The discussion was wrapped up by Faye Ramsson from Business in the Community who advised us that they hope to have a report ready around April time.

Careers work in schools has a literacy blindspot

A recent report from the National Literacy Trust attempted to shine a light into the dark space between statistics that show improving English GCSE grades across the country and yet employers surveys still showing dissatisfaction in the literacy skills of young recruits and applications and, at the heart of the issue, how young people themselves view the relationship between their own Literacy skills and their employability potential.

The report attempts to bridge the rhetoric between what employers actually demand in Literacy skills, which of these skills the recent curriculum equips school leavers with and how current changes to assessment and curriculum could impact this. For me, the report isn’t very strong on identifying the reasons behind the mismatching opinions of young people of whom a large majority realise that “communication skills” will be fundamental to their future potential but then struggle to see how the traditional skills of writing and comprehension are beneficial to this future. It will come as no surprise to any English teacher that the two topics of English study that students claim not to the see the relevance of would be the same ones many students would find the toughest to master, especially as so few of them are unwilling to flex those particular learning muscles outside of school. It seems obvious that young people should be under no doubt, through the lessons they are taught and the interactions with employers they have, that these skills, no matter how hard they seem, are worth the effort.

There is a gaping black hole in provision here which the CEIAG community and organisations seem reluctant to impose on. Far from only signposting courses or enabling career discovery, careers work aimed at this age group should surely empower learners by clearly decoding for them the expectations the gatekeepers of business and the worlds of work they wish to one day explore will have of them. Maybe because these expectations cover so many skills they have historically been so poorly communicated by business leaders that schools themselves are investigating to properly define them but the regular wish for greater literacy standards does cut across the divide as a clear expectation.

Where is the drive and focus from the sector to address this blindspot? At a time when the Minister for Education clearly isn’t convinced (to put it mildly) of the worth of the sector what better time to make ourselves relevant to the national discourse by offering resources that enable students to improve their writing and comprehension through employment and work related activities. Diaries to complete after work experience placements requiring reflection on the skills they gained and displayed, marketing and advertising briefs set by real life companies for real life products, customer brochures for new products, scenarios with contract disputes, even tasks on questionnaire design to show how different language choices can achieve very different results could all be examples of lesson plans offered on a website for teachers to utilise. The skills these lessons could cover are all pertinent to the new English Language GCSE to be taught from September 2015. There are already good free resources to aid spoken word communication skills such as the BT Moving On job interview series of lessons and accompanying videos but, to my knowledge, there does seem to be a dearth of provision for the writing and comprehension topics mentioned above. Of course, if I’m missing some fantastic resources out there please let me know in the comments!

This would require the careers sector to be the fulcrum of collaboration and facilitation with teaching groups, national literacy organisations and business to ensure that the resources were of sufficient quality but what better way to move careers education out of the box of irrelevancy it has been placed into and make inroads into showing just how central to the work of schools it both could be and that business demands it to be.