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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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.