Work experience opportunities too often marked by inequalities

Written by: Pete Henshaw | Published:
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An investigation by Parliament's Youth Select Committee has found that who you are and where you live dictate the kind and quality of work experience you receive. Pete Henshaw looks at their report

Young people’s early experiences of work are “too often marked by inequalities”, with who you are, where you live and where you go to school dictating the type and quality of experiences you are likely to receive.

These stark inequalities are not only linked to socio-economic background, but also to factors such as health and disability, gender, ethnicity and geographic location.

These are key findings from an investigation into the barriers to work experience by Parliament’s Youth Select Committee.

Its report, published last week, welcomes the government’s decision in 2012 to move away from fixed two-week work placements during key stage 4 and to give schools more freedom to design bespoke work and employer experiences for students.

It also welcomes the statutory requirement on schools to deliver the Gatsby Benchmarks for effective careers education. The eight Benchmarks include “encounters with employers and employees” and “experiences of workplaces”.

However, the committee, which is made up of 11 young people aged 16 to 18, calls on the Department for Education (DfE) to do more to ensure that this increasingly flexible approach to work experience “does not breed or perpetuate inequalities”.

The report states: “Even with the Benchmarks as a framework, there is a risk that substantive opportunities such as placements will continue to go to more privileged students.”

The committee wants to see the statutory guidance for schools – Careers guidance and access for education and training providers – updated to give students the “right to be offered a substantive work placement at 14 to 16”.

The report also recommends that the DfE collates and publishes data on the activities that students fulfil in respect of the work experience-related Gatsby Benchmarks, including details such as geographic location, disability, ethnicity, gender and socio-economic background. This information should be used to produce an annual “health check” on parity of access to work experience, they recommend.

The committee’s investigation heard evidence that:

  • Disadvantaged young people often have fewer work experience opportunities than those from better off families.
  • Young people from wealthier families are more likely to be satisfied with their work experience opportunities and confident in their ability to access good quality work experience.
  • Black and minority ethnic young people report lower satisfaction than White young people with the careers advice they receive and opportunities they can access.
  • Disabled young people frequently struggle to access work experience due to a lack of expectation on behalf of educators and employers.
  • Access to placements can reflect gender stereotypes, not least in STEM disciplines.
  • Geographic location can limit opportunities, especially for young people in rural areas for whom the cost of travel can be prohibitive.

The report points to evidence showing that effective work and employer experience is key to social mobility.
Research from the Education and Employers charity shows that the more contacts young people have with employers during their education the better prepared for work they are and the higher their future earnings are likely to be.

However, the report adds: “Students who could benefit most from high-quality support – those from disadvantaged and under-served communities – receive less, and poorer quality, provision.”

Both the government’s Careers Strategy (December 2017) and its statutory guidance for schools includes the requirement for schools to deliver the Gatsby Benchmarks. The government has charged the Careers & Enterprise Company (CEC), which was set-up with public funding to support good careers education, with supporting schools to deliver the Benchmarks.

A report from the CEC, also published last week, reveals that schools and colleges are meeting on average 2.13 of the eight Gatsby Benchmarks, compared to 1.87 a year ago. Within this, 18 per cent of schools and colleges are not achieving any of the eight, while 11 per cent are achieving the majority (just 21 schools and colleges are achieving all eight).

The Youth Select Committee concludes that the use of both the Gatsby Benchmarks and the CEC has “potential”. However, given the investment of public money it says that Ofsted should be given a role inspecting the CEC’s impact. The DfE should also commission a review into the CEC’s impact on access to work experience for the most disadvantaged young people, the report adds.

Claudia Quinn, chair of the Youth Select Committee, said: “Following our extensive inquiry, we have concluded the government need to address the patchy, unequal nature of young people’s access to work experience. The government must act now to ensure the most disadvantaged young people can access high-quality work experience.”

The Youth Select Committee is made up of 11 young people aged 16 to 18 and the topic for their inquiry was chosen by young people themselves in last year’s Make Your Mark ballot – run as part of UK Parliament Week.

  • Realising the Potential of Work Experience, Youth Select Committee, November 2018:
  • Careers and enterprise provision in England’s secondary schools and colleges: State of the Nation 2018, CEC, November 2018:
  • Good Career Guidance, The Gatsby Foundation, 2013 (including the Gatsby Benchmarks):
  • Careers Strategy: Making the most of everyone’s skills and talents, DfE, December 2017:
  • Statutory guidance: Careers guidance and access for education and training providers, DfE, March 2015 (last updated October 2018):


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