The British Youth Council has this week received an official response from the Government regarding the provision of meaningful and consistent work experience for young people. Despite ‘welcoming’ the Youth Select Committee’s inquiry into work experience, the document conspicuously equivocates on the Government’s duties to maximising social mobility and ensuring equality of opportunity devoid of geographic, ethnic, socioeconomic and gendered barriers.
Rather than accept and begin the implementation of the Select Committee’s suggested introductions of obligatory national benchmarks and Ofsted inspections of Careers and Enterprise Company provision in schools; as well as consider the resurrection of an Enterprise Passport to ensure meaningful self-reflection for those participating in work experience placements, the Government has proffered a patchy endorsement of the report’s conclusions without any attempt to honour its recommendations.
The singular assurance was the Government’s proposal to ‘involve young people in the design and testing of any National Careers Services’ new resources’, though this hardly makes any genuine progress towards rectifying the notoriously unequal nature of work experience, in terms of both access and quality. As Claudia Quinn, Chair of the Youth Select Committee, noted: ‘[we] are disappointed’ with the Government’s response.
In comparison with Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish devolved governments, the report highlights the failings of Westminster towards its specifically English youth cohort. Due to the lack of a comprehensive ‘Work Experience’ online hub, or national framework for guaranteed, accessible participation (which exists in the devolved governments), the success of English school students’ work placements is often privy to the right connections. Regrettably, though unsurprisingly, the report found that an individual’s work experience placement will depend largely on parental occupation and social circles — with better-off students receiving more meaningful experiences in elite professions such as media, law and politics. For everyone else, it’s photocopying, making cups of coffee and sitting idly at unoccupied desks.
Even the Government’s hopeful roll-out of T-Levels for more technologically-inclined 16-19-year-olds will fail to address the vocational experience gap for more practically-minded students, since construction, manufacturing, primary sector and utilities services are the industries offering the lowest amount of opportunities for work placements of any kind. As SMEs (small to medium-sized enterprises), many of these companies lack the structural resources and funding to provide meaningful work experience placements. As we move ever closer to the no-deal Brexit cliff edge, it’s unlikely the Government’s T-Level project will satisfy any fears regarding the UK’s manifest skills gap between services and manufacturing or construction (especially if the roll-out of universal credit is anything to go off).
Clearly, this issue goes beyond the immediate concern of where and how students obtain work experience — if at all. The Brokerage, a small London-based charity, aims to improve social mobility amongst young people in the city and its surrounding areas, particularly in finance and professional services. Alongside this is a meritocratic Transport for London policy-related work experience scheme, the ‘Innovate Programme’. London Ambitions, meanwhile, is a joint project between the London LEP and London Councils, which aims to ensure all young people in London receive at least 100 hours’ experience of work before they are sixteen.
While this trains up a flexible, capital-based student workforce of budding financiers and lawyers, it fails to recognise the need to train up a regional workforce of manufacturers. Since the nineteenth century, the Government’s economic policy has been to cynically perpetuate the services and manufacturing chasm between London and its peripheries. If it wants to continue with this, it’s going to have to do a lot more to make those students living in the regions see manufacturing as an attractive option for a future career.
On top of Government complacency, it is also precisely amongst English regions that schools and communities are lacking in adequate provision for a basic education. In the Committee’s report is an insistence that, within those schools where budgets are pressurised, career advice falls on overworked teachers. If schools lack adequate investment to procure basic resources, where is the incentive, funding and opportunity to recruit qualified Careers Leaders or in-house careers liaison teams? The answer is there isn’t one.
Although the Government’s response to the Committee about accessibility issues specifies that travel bursaries for young people are available, to stop geographic location or socioeconomic background preventing their professional development; it also specifies that there is no statutory duty for schools to provide funding to travel to work experience. Instead, ‘local authorities are responsible’. As has been a marked feature of Conservative governments over the last decade, deflection to local authorities is a convenient way of revealing their utter indifference to solving the problem of unequal accessibility issues in securing work experience — since, of course, local authority funding has been slashed to its bare bones.
Bethanie Mortenson, for example, a young person from Greater Manchester, told the Select Committee that she was ‘the only person in [her] year who had work experience’, and that was only because of a fortuitous connection. Cameron Wood, meanwhile, a young disabled person, told the Committee that ‘it is not the easiest of tasks’ for most young disabled people to find and access placements. This refraction of responsibility encourages a vicious cycle of complacency and a governmental acceptance of the status quo.
Given that The Sutton Trust — a social mobility charity — argues that good quality work experience is a ‘useful lever in improving social mobility’, the Government’s reluctance to listen to young people themselves, or implement the Youth Council’s reasonable work experience-related recommendations, demonstrates a sadistic desire to perpetuate systems of educational and professional inequality. Breeding an equality of opportunity, and consequently, as the Trust outlines, ‘higher wage premiums and better economic outcomes’ for all, cannot exist until standardised and accessible practices of work experience are implemented across the whole of England. And quickly.