No more cheap labour

Young people get a raw deal from work placements: they need to be given a vision for the future away

They are a familiar sight in supermarkets and hairdressing salons, especially in the summer term. Pupils get to spend a week stacking shelves, sweeping up, and making the tea in what for many will be their first experience of the world of work. The legal requirement for all state school pupils between the ages of 14 and 16 to experience work-related learning has now been in place for four years, but questions are being raised about its effectiveness.

Daniel Snell, the founder of Arrival Education, is one who believes that bright young people from inner-city areas are getting a raw deal from the work placement process. "In most aspects, it is not massively effective," he says. "It has no context and no structure, and offers no pathway between education and the world of work. It has no relevance to young people?"

He believes that rather than offering young people with difficult home lives a way out of their environment and a route to achieve the goals they want out of life, it reinforces their view that meaningful employment is not something they can aspire to. As a result they drift towards a gang culture which gives them a level of respect and a notion that they belong to something. "They develop an attitude that they just don't care about what happens to them or to other people," he adds.

Five years ago Snell was enjoying the benefits of a lucrative career with a finance company in the City of London before an event happened which was to change his perspective on life. The teenage brother of his flatmate was stabbed to death, the victim of the gang culture prevalent on the housing estates of Hackney in east London where the young man lived. "It was one of those moments when I realised that I could keep talking about what needed to be done by the government or society, or I could actually go out there and try to do something about it myself," he explains.

He abandoned his City career to set up an organisation to develop his unusual solution to the problem of young people killing each other: through work placements that aim to provide them with a vision for their futures in a career of their choice away from the gangs. "The reason they are stabbing each other is that they are bored. Their behaviour is a perfect reflection of what they see their future will look like," he says. "Often placements give young people a confused notion of what business is like. They get out of their depth and are overwhelmed. They fall asleep at a desk and don't turn up."

His organisation, funded by the businesses that provide the work placement opportunities, is currently working with ten schools in London, Leeds and Manchester, and has plans to be working with 100 schools nationwide within three years. It runs a Success for Life programme developed for the 20 most charismatic young people at each school, "the cool kids who are the most influential". They begin on a foundation course of five separate days learning business skills and choosing the sector they would like work in. "We build the programme around what they want to do and what they want out of life," he explains. "We give them a placement with a company that reflects their interest. The programme is designed around the skills sets that businesses say they are missing."

Stephen Overell, associate director of The Work Foundation, a research and consultancy organisation, says work placements provide a valuable experience in areas where schools and parents have good networks. "At its worst it can drift towards exploitation," he says. "It involves filing and odd bits of labour that nobody wants to do being dumped on a work experience person. Later in life they might resent that."

Poignantly, a pupil from a school on the Arrival Education programme is one of the latest victims of knife crime. David Idowu, 14, a pupil at Walworth Academy in South London, died earlier this month. Snell says: "He had applied to be on our programme and there was a chance he may have been accepted next year."

Joe Clancy is an education correspondent