School students and work

Alex Fradera, editor of the Society’s new Occupational Digest (see, talks to Jim McKechnie

Could you first outline some fundamentals – what is the legal status for young people in work?

There are actually two groups we need to consider here. Children under the age of 16 are covered by a set of legislation called the Children and Young Persons Act, which has been on the books since 1933. It’s pretty bureaucratic and outdated, focusing on prescribing what jobs this age group can and can’t do, and carries with it the idea that they shouldn’t carry much responsibility. Conversely, once a young person is 16 – or more precisely, once they have finished the year of school in which they turned 16 – this is the end of their compulsory education period. They receive a National Insurance number, and in the eyes of the law are like any other adult with respect to employment.

Your research group explores the balance model of employment and education. What is that about?

It essentially argues that employment during school years can bring advantages and disadvantages. There are other approaches – the zero-sum model argues that any time spent working is time that could be spent on school work, and thus is detrimental. But clearly, the children could be spending their time on all sorts of activities – they could be on Xbox – so we’re not persuaded of this.

Another alternative is the developmental model, which argues that part-time work when young can aid developmental processes. The way in which we see it is that any adult job has good and bad features to it, so this is likely to be true for young people too.

What’s a good example of that?

Take the number of hours worked – our research suggests a complex relationship with educational attainment. Students working excessive hours – more than 15 hours a week – have negative consequences in academic attainment.

But those working five to six hours a week do better educationally than students who have never worked. Of course, we have to establish the causality, but it’s clear that working isn’t necessarily a bad thing for schooling.

Beyond the hours worked, are there types of job that are less worthwhile – too menial, perhaps?

We need to be cautious and not look at these jobs through adult eyes. The least demanding jobs are those in delivery – not a lot of contact with individuals, not much decision making. But at the same time, those jobs tend to be taken by people who’ve never worked before as a first way in to having a job.

As an early experience, it might be demanding to them, as they’ve never had to get up early before, they’ve never had to be reliable. And typically, people who start part-time in delivery work go through a sort of career path of part-time jobs, with an ‘arc of demand’ increasing as they move forward.

What are the typical jobs that school students are involved in?

Some people believe this work is by definition low value and menial. But our own research suggests it involves a range of roles across the service sector – the majority in retail and catering, but also delivery, labouring, office work, caring and cleaning. These are real jobs, not children’s jobs, and initial research suggests they provide some genuine learning opportunities. For instance, in our study, over 80 per cent of roles involved cooperating with other staff members, over 70 per cent dealing with customers and over 20 per cent had some kind of supervisory role.

That last detail is particularly fascinating – do we have any sense of what these supervisory responsibilities look like?

One example we have is of an individual entering work in a shoe shop at the age of 14 who gained sufficient expertise in technology and methods that by 16 they were used to dealing with and training new employees.

Now, we know the value of peer-to-peer tutoring in education, so why not take that model and apply it to business situations? You could imagine having a young person showing others the ropes may be better than a more managerial approach, and avoids potential culture clashes.

Could you talk about how employers are involved?

Well, they tend to seek school-age employees on the basis of flexibility, rather than cheapness – wages are typically standard, especially for post-16s. Some recognise ‘a breath of fresh air’ that a young person brings into a workplace. For example, they see them as more enthusiastic compared to the adult part-time employees they have.

Employers are very variable in how they treat young employees still. at school. One response to this would be to recognise good employers in some way. For instance, training provided is very variable. Those employers who do train see the young people as an investment for the future – ‘I get a good quality employee for a relatively low cost.’

In this sense, it resembles the impetus for many graduate programmes.

Yes – and moreover, when these employees move on typically they introduce their friends as a ‘next generation’ for the business; a free screening process for the employer.

There is a growing recognition among employers that this young group of people are a valuable support system for their business, but it would benefit employers to pay more attention in some cases. It would be worthwhile for better, more organised employers to introduce contracts when workers hit 16 to ensure they get time off for exam prep, to restrict hours so it doesn’t clash with education; to say ‘we acknowledge we get the flexibility, so we give something back’.

How about the young people themselves – how can they get more from these early work experiences?

There’s a major challenge for young workers themselves, as they tend to undervalue the experience, and don’t see the full scope of what they’re doing. In education, we use personal development planning to foster self-reflection on academic work. Should we extend this to work experience too?

There is a tension, however. When you talk to young people, one of the major benefits they see in paid work is a growth in their independence and autonomy – a consistent finding in the evidence base. If you try to educationalise that experience, you may be undermining one of its most valuable benefits! If you have to justify to the teacher what you’ve learned from work, it becomes just another kind of coursework.

Our cautious position would be to start out with those pupils who want to embark on an educationalisation or recognition of the process – such as a module that involves self-reflection on work experience – rather than mandating it for all pupils. Schools should certainly develop an awareness of it; in particular, it may be a way to help with those at risk of falling into the NEET category – Not in Employment, Education or Training. Many young people struggling at school may have part-time jobs that they are getting more from.

Another benefit would be to educate young people in how to balance work and education in a better way. To share with them that a risk factor is working too many hours, not whether you work at all, opening up more options for the individual who is currently struggling. Unfortunately, schools tend to see it as an either/or model.

How does voluntary work fit into this?

Our research group is only just beginning to look at unpaid work outside family. There is some evidence to suggest that there is an ‘active student profile’ – those students with a part-time job also tend to be those who are more socially active and involved in unpaid voluntary work. We’re not sure what the causality is, but there may be something about simply being involved in working that opens up the idea of being involved in unpaid work. Or unpaid work makes you more confident to enter a paid work experience. Perhaps unpaid work makes it more likely to be in a demanding paid job. This is something that needs to be untangled – we simply don’t know enough about it at the moment.

Internships have been a topic of interest recently. Are there any parallels in your work?

In this field, the closest we come to internships is school work experience, and there are a few ways this can interact with paid work. The first is that the paid work can be used as the work experience, where the young person gets paid to go in for a whole week, supervised by the school. The other approach, which has some parallels to the intern situation, is where a placement for work experience can convert into paid work.

Now, this is a very different educational experience to interning, but there may be resemblances in how they open up a job market for young people. But as to the extent to which this is explicitly sought for the kinds of reasons that internships are? I don’t think it’s reached that level of awareness.

How would you like to see the world of psychology participating in this discussion?

From an occupational psychology perspective, to ask whether or not we can look at this age group of workers in terms of well-researched features, such as job satisfaction, quality of employment experiences, engagement, even issues like stress. There is an array of tools out there but they’ve been designed for adult populations. Given that an estimated 1.1–1.7m under-16s contribute to the economy through part-time jobs, and given we’re talking about our future workforce here, this would be valuable research.

Moreover, developmental psychology needs to realise that this is a typical feature of the adolescent experience in the UK.

So we should bring employment into the study of young people, and young people into the study of work.

Exactly, many areas of psychology are ready to gain insights from paying more attention to this area. This group needs some time under the spotlight.


BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber