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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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.