Undergraduate placements: Going back to school...

Written by: Lee Miller | Published:
Valuable experience: Omar and Hazel, accounting students from the University of Kent, during their placement at The Portsmouth Academy (image: supplied)

The Thinking Schools Academy Trust set up an undergraduate student placement scheme eight years ago. Lee Miller explains how it works and what is involved

It has always been a core belief of mine that outstanding education should extend far beyond what is learnt in the classroom. It was with this in mind that I decided to set up a student placement programme for finance and business undergraduates to encourage and enable young people to consider education and wider public sector as the meaningful and fulfilling career option that it is.

Starting small eight years ago when I was in the role of business manager in what was then called City of Portsmouth Girls’ School, we appointed a student, Kyle Ball, while he was in the placement year of his degree at University of Portsmouth.

Kyle’s work with us was fantastic – he provided us with excellent support, and we provided him with real skills learnt in the workplace that he could take with him into the rest of his career.

The success of this first placement ensured we continued the scheme, including when the Thinking Schools Academy Trust took over City of Portsmouth Girls’, which is now named The Portsmouth Academy.

In the eight years we have run the programme, we have had 14 students of subjects such as business, HR and accounting join us, first from the University of Portsmouth and then also from the University of Kent (the trust’s 16 academies are located in Portsmouth, Medway and Kent).

Since we began our programme, we have seen measurable successes, both in terms of the former students forging accomplished career paths and also in terms of contributing to the wider public good.

Kyle, with whom I am still regularly in touch, is now head of finance at the Solent Academy Trust. Our second placement student is now a finance manager in a local authority in London, while another is now working as a management accountant in the NHS. None of these students initially imagined working in the public sector, but they are all making invaluable contributions to their respective organisations and have happy and rewarding careers.

Kyle explained: “I wouldn’t be in my current role if it wasn’t for taking part in Lee’s placement scheme. I had never previously considered a career in school business management so it opened my eyes to that, and then it gave me an opportunity to get some practical work.

“I was able to try my hand at lots of roles that I usually wouldn’t have been able to experience until further into my career. I would absolutely recommend a placement like this to any student. It gives you a chance to grow and to have a mentor, and it really sets you up for a career.”

Excitingly, we are now expanding to run a graduate scheme in addition to the placements we already offer and are looking forward to helping graduates on their way to a great career in the education and public sectors.

I cannot underestimate the assistance that our placement students, and soon our graduates, provide to our organisation as well.
From its beginnings eight years ago, I am proud of what our programme has achieved in terms of widespread mutual benefit – and would encourage other schools and trusts to look into setting up similar programmes.

How does the scheme work?

The first step we took when setting up the scheme was working out how best it could be arranged to give the student a varied experience and also ensure they provide real help to the department they are working in.

After assessing the viability of the scheme, we contacted local universities to gauge interest and to work out which degree programmes would be most suited to taking part.

We then established an application scheme so that we could select students who would get the most out of the placement. This usually takes around six months, as generally placement students are looking in February and March for a placement to commence in September.

Many students of the degree programmes we focus on have placement years built in, so they usually have a final year of study to complete after our placement is over. To provide continuity both for our staff and for the student, if logistics allow it, we try to offer part-time work over the course of this final year.

This allows them to gain further experience and stay in touch with the world of work once they have returned to their studies. It also allows for our organisation to continue to benefit from their work and input.

Setting up your own scheme

Work out which areas of your organisation have the capacity for a placement scheme and could benefit from one. Although ours is in finance, it is of course possible to expand the scheme into other areas of your organisation.

Assess the ideal timescale of the placement – while ours ran through an entire year, some courses do not offer a placement year and scope for shorter-term help may be more suitable for some schools.

Decide who you will partner with. We chose to partner with local universities to strengthen our already strong ties with the locations our trust is based in, and for logistical ease as well.

Work out the qualities that you would be looking for in a potential placement student – sometimes this may be more abstract qualities such as diligence and reliability. With some areas, such as finance, a prior conceptual understanding is a prerequisite. This will help you in setting up an application process that reflects what you are looking for.

Work with your placement student to create a scheme of work that suits both of you – what interests them and what would they like to learn more about? What kind of assistance would be most beneficial to your organisation?

  • Lee Miller is deputy CEO at the Thinking Schools Academy Trust.


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