One positive to come out of the first period of lockdown in 2020 was the growth in virtual experience opportunities available to students, many of which were without geographical limitations. One challenge has been keeping up-to-date with all the new options and ensuring their outcomes work for students. A further test for the busy careers leader is adapting a work experience programme amid the challenge of new (and ever-changing) restrictions while allaying concerns from school leadership, parents and students.

Here are some of the key questions for careers leaders in January 2021.

  1. Should we use a virtual work experience package?

On the surface, this may seem to be the most manageable option: use the same package for an entire year group or cohort and put in measures to ensure that the overwhelming majority take part.

Look out for Oak National Academy’s My Week of Work; IGD’s Virtual Work Experience programme; Barclays LifeSkills Virtual Work Experience; as well as paid-for experiences like Reed’s Work Experience Week.

As careers leader, you will need to examine the content to ensure that it meets the needs of your students. Not all job sectors are represented within these packages, so consider whether you would need to offer something different for students looking outside the sectors covered.

To meet the Careers & Enterprise Company guidance on online employer engagement for Benchmark 6, you will need to show two-way interaction between student and employer; as well as production of a piece of work or task with employer feedback. This isn’t routinely included within all of the packages mentioned above, so further work may be required to add elements like these to your programme.


  1. Could we offer a choice of job-specific virtual experiences?

Beyond the packages offered above, The Careers & Enterprise Company share many virtual opportunities through their resource directory. You’ll find plenty of big-name employers offering experiences. Organisations including Speakers for Schools and Springpod share regularly-updated vacancies in a range of different job sectors.

If you want to offer students the most variety in what they can do, then you should find greater breadth in content than the packages in question one, however it is not necessarily an easier option for staff. There may be more work to support students’ applications and you may find it more of a challenge to monitor take-up and positive outcomes for students (see question 5).


  1. Can students take part in physical work experience this year?

Most virtual work experiences are based around home-working tasks, so where does this leave students looking for more practical experiences? What are the chances of getting out into the workplace this academic year?

Physical work experience may be possible where you have that perfect combination of a supportive leadership team and links with understanding employers. You’ll need to keep a close eye on Health & Safety Executive (HSE) guidance. You will also need to update existing work experience paperwork so it fits with new school and employer COVID-19 risk assessments.

In-person work experience might seem unthinkable right now and, arguably, not all students and parents or carers would want this, but some employers are optimistic that they will be able to offer in-person work experience in the summer months.


  1. Could we develop our own work experience tasks?

If you can’t find what you want ‘off-the-shelf’, why not devise a series of employer-set tasks with the support of your Enterprise Co-ordinator or Enterprise Adviser and their network of employers? This could result in a more bespoke offer to meet the needs of your students, while following the guidance on online employer engagement. It is also more likely to reflect local employment (perhaps providing a view of the local labour market, but with the risk of feeling restrictive if local opportunities are limited). In theory, these tasks could be developed collaboratively across a multi-academy trust, city or region rather than just in one school, college or academy, but the need for student-employer interaction and feedback may limit the ability to scale up.


  1. How do we effectively monitor take-up, completion and positive outcomes from virtual work experience?

With the increased range of experiences that students can sign up for this year, it is likely to be more of a challenge to track and monitor student involvement, whether you use Compass+ or your own recording systems. You may need to adapt your existing paperwork to take account of students completing a range of online activities in place of one in-person experience.

The ways in which students reflect and record their experiences, perhaps through an experience diary, might also need an overhaul to reflect how different these experiences might look this year.

As in most of education right now, work experience in 2021 might well involve hoping for face-to-face opportunities, planning for virtual ones, and ending up with a blended offer. The good news is that, this year, students need not miss out on the huge benefits of experiences of the workplace.