Making work experience work better

The New Statesman is partnering with the Social Mobility Foundation to improve access to the media.

"Internships" are a controversial subject at the moment. Several media companies - including the New Statesman - have been accused of "running on interns", and exploiting young people by asking them to work without pay. 

We take that charge seriously. But we also think that there's value in work experience, done correctly: if young people are given a chance to experience office life, to learn about what really goes into producing a successful magazine and website, and to receive feedback on their own writing, that gives them a better chance of finding a job. 

So I wanted to write a bit about what we've done to make our work experience programme better, and what happens next. First, we think there is an important distinction between internships - placements lasting months, often doing work which would otherwise fall to a paid member of staff - and work experience. 

The latter should last no more than a couple of weeks, so that it can be done around other work or study commitments. Placements should also involve as much effort on our part as from the person we're hosting. If you get work experience here, you'll be encouraged to pitch ideas for blogs related to your interests, and we will give you detailed constructive criticism on them, helping you develop as a writer. You won't be expected to spend all day doing routine administrative tasks, and there are no fixed hours. If we scrapped our work experience programme tomorrow, the New Statesman would continue to function exactly as before. That's the test of whether interns are replacing paid employees. As for paying our interns: we do. Anyone who stays beyond their initial placement - for example Phil, our current centenary research assistant; or editorial assistants such as the talented Duncan Robinson, now at the Financial Times - is paid. 

To make our work experience scheme as useful as possible, we host only two people in editorial at any one time (there is often a design work experience candidate, too, learning about layout, photoshop and picture editing with the art desk). Our placements are open to all, and we have a merit-based application system. 

What about the charge that work experience schemes give an unfair advantage to those whose parents live in London? There's truth in that, and so for the last few months we've tested a "virtual work experience" scheme where young people are mentored remotely by me and the web editor, Caroline Crampton. They pitch to us as if they were freelancers, and we give them feedback on their approach and their writing style. Everyone we've helped has said the help and advice we gave was useful. 

But that's not enough. We know that there is still a problem with the lack of diversity in the media, and it's something we want to address. The editor of the Spectator, Fraser Nelson, recommended to me the work of the Social Mobility Foundation, which aims to get more bright students from non-traditional backgrounds working in careers such as journalism. 

The New Statesman will be working with the SMF in two main ways from now on. First, we've agreed to host Year 12 students selected by them this summer for one-week placements. Second, more than a dozen of our staff and bloggers have volunteered to be mentors to students for a one-year period starting in March. They'll be in regular email contact with them as they decide their career path and apply to university.

The SMF targets its help to those who have achieved 5 As at GCSE (6 for those who want to study Medicine) and be predicted at least ABB at A-level, and are either eligible for free school meals, or attend a school where 30 per cent of pupils are eligible, and are in the first generation of their family to attend university in the UK.

These are exactly the kind of people the media needs if it is to better reflect our society, and we’re proud to be working with the Social Mobility Foundation to make that happen.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity