Should schools make pupils ‘work-ready’?

Sunday 29 October, 16:0017:15, Frobisher 1-3Battle for Education


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At the end of 2016, Ofsted’s survey, ‘Getting ready for work’, declared that the ‘nation’s economic prosperity is at risk because the majority of England’s schools fail to prioritise enterprise education and work-related learning’. Schools were criticised for failing to make enterprise education – which involves teaching pupils the knowledge they will need to be future employees and potential employers – a key part of the curriculum, leaving large numbers of young people, particularly the disadvantaged, unprepared for the world of work.

Ofsted is not alone in its concerns. A workforce survey by the British Chambers of Commerce repeated a common complaint from businesses that many young people are not adequately prepared for the workplace on leaving education. More than three-quarters of respondents reported a lack of work experience as one of the key reasons young people are unprepared for work. In April 2017, the Department for Education responded to such criticisms by updating its statutory guidance for schools, stating that: ‘Schools should create a learning environment which allows and encourages pupils to tackle real life challenges which require them to manage risk and to develop their decision making, team building and problem solving skills.’

However, the extent to which schools should use the curriculum to prepare pupils for the world of work is contentious. On the one hand, some argue that this emphasis turns education into an instrumental project, inevitably institutionalising a turn away from a commitment to knowledge for its own sake. School leaders complain that this is yet another demand on their beleaguered finances and curriculum time, especially when, over recent years, educators have been asked to focus on testing, examination results and a core academic curriculum for all.

Perhaps in response to accusations that schools should not be dominated by a narrow employability skills agenda, the emphasis of new careers guidance is becoming broader. We are told careers guidance can facilitate ‘access to a range of inspirational role models’, can ‘instil resilience, goal setting, hard work and social confidence’ and can be a vehicle for social mobility. Careers professionals stress this is more than cursory, patchy and superficial work experience. Beyond work placements, it can also involve careers fairs, motivational talks, enterprise challenges, mock interviews and networking events, all of which ‘can bridge the social divide by ensuring all young people have equal access to work-related knowledge that will guide and prepare them for the next stage of their lives’.

Even in its narrow sense, many parents report that their children enjoy work experience because it gives them a wider outlook on the world, allows young people to learn to act in an independent way and facilitates exposure to adults outside their immediate social circle. As such, work experience is not a threat to academic excellence, more of an add-on.

So what is the balance? Does a focus on careers guidance ultimately distract from the core role of schools in terms of passing on ‘the best that has been thought and said’? Is depending on careers guidance to instil resilience and to offer inspirational role models and other ‘soft skills’ a loss of confidence in academic disciplines, which historically were
assumed to perform the same role? If, as it is claimed, the career choices that young people make can be informed by the practical experience they gain at school, should schools indeed re-orientate their curriculum to help their pupils become more work-savvy? Should we move away from a prescriptive academic curriculum and embrace new school models such as careers colleges and university technical colleges, where pupils can go at 14 to take a vocational route?