Teach First Director of School Leadership, Graihagh Crawshaw
Graihagh Crashaw
Director of School Leadership at Teach First

Modern work is changing fast — how can work experience keep up?

Work experience is a rite of passage for all teenagers, but is it adapting in sync with the modern world of work? Experts from education and business examine how effectively young people are being prepared for the job prospects that await them.

The pandemic had a significant and detrimental impact on pupils being able to engage with employers face-to-face. We are yet to understand the long-term implications of this, especially for those in key year groups about to enter the world of work or further education.

The 2020 Pye Tait Consulting report on the impact of COVID-19 on careers guidance found two main themes:

  1. The impact on the lack of face-to-face contact.
  2. The cancelling of work experience all together.

As schools planned to address gaps in provision through 2021, work experience and employer encounters were listed as the top teacher concerns.

But was it as bleak as we thought? In 2020, the Careers and Enterprise Company (CEC) produced its Careers in Context: A Can Do Guide, which emphasised that the Gatsby Benchmarks are as relevant in an online world, and that experiences of the workplace could and should reflect the fast-changing nature of work (including remote and hybrid working). We know of some schools that jumped on this opportunity and utilised online encounters to ensure their provision could continue.

It feels like there is now an opportunity for schools to ‘re-think’ work experience – away from the traditional Year 10 fortnight, away from first come first served, away from what can end up being a box ticking exercise. If work experience models become more hybrid and better integrated, then the local labour market context does not have to determine what is available; opportunities in urban centres can be equally accessed in more remote or coastal areas, levelling the playing field and providing more options.

Through the CEC’s Redefine experiences of the workplace report, we have a strong message for the sector. Let's shift perceptions and change the way workplace experiences are co-planned and implemented. We must put aims first and align these to school priorities and pupil needs. What are the desired outcomes? What essential skills could be developed? Ultimately, what are the clear advantages for the employer?

We reached out to various experts across the sector for their take on the question of adapting work experience for the modern world.


Oli de Botton - Chief Executive at The Careers and Enterprise Company

The challenge will be to ensure that new models are inclusive of all young people and help close gaps in social capital.

When I was Headteacher of School 21 in Stratford, East London, I found that work experience worked best when three conditions were met. First, it needed to be part of a wide and extensive careers’ offer to young people that included ongoing employer engagement, skills building and pathway exploration (highlighting technical as well as academic routes). Second, experiences of the workplace needed to be as ‘real’ as possible. In fact the more real, the more rigorous. In our case we had extended ‘real world placements’ in industry, half a day a week throughout Year 10 (repeated in Year 12). Young people were interviewed for roles, they could be ‘fired’ and they shared their work at the end as part of an exhibition. As a school we received ongoing feedback so young people could improve their ‘work readiness’ throughout the experience. Third, employers needed to be confident that young people understood the skills and attributes they value and what it took to be successful in their workplace.

This learning I think holds true for future iterations of work experience but there is of course much to build on from the way schools, colleges and employers have innovated during the pandemic. Our recent report, Trends in Careers Education, showed that the power of work experience could be enhanced by ongoing employer engagement with the curriculum. We saw examples of employers and teachers working together to bring the world of work to life through subjects like Maths and English. Think ‘ratio’ and ‘proportion’ through the lens of how these topics are important on sets in the creative industries.

Virtual innovation also led to some exciting new models. Employers were able to reach young people across a wider area and provide opportunities in harder-to-reach industries. Some began using different formats to achieve meaningful engagement, including exposure to a wider array of teams within an organisation and longer-form programmes. Others used new mediums, including mobile phones and virtual technology.

As we return to ‘normal’, employers are saying they want to retain some of these benefits and expect a blended approach to stay. The challenge will be to ensure that new models are inclusive of all young people, help close gaps in social capital and give young people the face-to-face and virtual interactions that build confidence and aspiration.

Follow Oli on Twitter @olidebotton.


Swati Patel - Social Impact and Partnerships Manager at Sunbelt Rentals

Businesses need to be part of the answer... to open [pupils'] eyes to careers which are new and gathering momentum.

We work nowadays in such dynamic and digital environments, that work experience programmes must be designed to engage, motivate and prepare today's young people for tomorrow's careers.

Businesses need to be part of the answer, supporting schools, and colleges to help inform students about the many opportunities that exist, and to open their eyes to careers which are new and gathering momentum.

For example, Sunbelt Rentals work experience programme provided opportunities for students to understand the skills required to work on large scale projects in the construction and rental industry. This included digital systems such as BIM (Building Information Modelling); the Internet of Things and connected sites; the latest eco innovations and technology to reduce carbon emissions and address the carbon emergency and social/digital media/ecommerce.

Follow Swati Patel on Twitter @SwatiMPatel.


Simon Wareham - Senior Leader (Student Progression) at Southmoor Academy

Students need to have the opportunity to experience sectors that are relevant to them that will prepare them for their own pathway.

With the increasing emphasis being placed to provide high-quality Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance in schools, students are now much more familiar and confident with understanding different pathways, job sectors, job families and employability skills. The world of work has evolved and moved away from the traditional nine-to-five over five days. Students need to have the opportunity to experience sectors that are relevant to them that will prepare them for their own pathway.

This would include moving away from a traditional one-week work experience block placement in the summer in the office where a member of the family works, and instead young people spending one afternoon per week over a whole school year working with a relevant business where they experience what it feels like to be part of that business. This would give a real insight into how that business works and give young people the opportunity to decide if that is the correct sector or pathway. Young people could be given the opportunity to take part in extended paid placements so they can understand how to manage their finances or read a pay slip to give them those life experiences. Virtual Work Experience gives young people the opportunity to access businesses not situated in their immediate local areas, opening the doors to young people working with a huge range of sectors normally unavailable to them.

As work experience evolves, time needs to be given by schools to allow young people to access relevant employers and understand how their school studies link to their future working life and to develop the essential employability skills they need for when they leave school.

Follow Simon on Twitter @slwareham.


Closing thoughts

There is no doubt that the pandemic has forced change, and the gaps that have been exacerbated by COVID-19 bring an urgency for further change. As with most things, there’s no magic bullet; but if schools and employers take this opportunity and act differently moving forwards, then we might see the kind of change that is needed at a system level. The chance to redefine this work and deliver it in a hybrid way that isn’t limited by geography could make all the difference for current and future generations.

Our work experience programme

Our Careers Leader programme


Watch: Our Future Terms panel on work experience

This panel aired on Thursday 3 February 2022.



Graihagh Crashaw - Director of School Leadership at Teach First


  • Oli de Botton - Chief Executive at The Careers and Enterprise Company
  • Swati Patel - Social Impact and Partnerships Manager at Sunbelt Rentals
  • Simon Wareham - Senior Leader (Student Progression) at Southmoor Academy

You can now listen to our Future Terms panels on Spotify and Apple Podcasts. To sign up for the next event, visit our website.

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