Opinion: who wants a demotivated 14-year-old? Jay Andrews doesn't

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Last week, the Secretary of State for Education and Employment trailed the idea of extended work experience for 14-year-olds. Gillian Shephard told one journalist she saw it as a way of stimulating children demotivated by school work, "while doing something for employers at the same time".

To my businesswoman's ears, that "something" sounded ominous. As if, perhaps, little thought would be given to the hundreds of thousands of British businesses expected to play along.

Last month, along with a hundred other employers from our small rural town, I took on a pupil from the local secondary school for the currently accepted fortnight of work experience. Daniel was 15, bright and keenly interested in film production. My small independent production company was a nice match for him.

But after the fortnight we both breathed a sigh of relief. I could work faster, untrammelled by having to explain what I was doing and organising my work accordingly; he could retreat from an intensely adult world and go back to his schemes to become the next Tarantino. If we had been offered a further two or three days a week for the following six school terms, we would have both politely refused.

That was a fortnight, and that was a motivated teenager. Before launching any extension of the current scheme, Mrs Shephard is going to have to work out how to sell businesses the idea of taking on demotivated students. We're in business to earn money, not to train recalcitrant teenagers.

The least acceptable justification for work experience is that pupils learn the work ethic: punctuality, appropriate dress and manner, and the ability to deal with adults. This is what schools are for: why should businesses provide it? And would we do any better?

Explaining a job and motivating people takes skill, which is why companies that can afford it buy in specialists. Would the Government be prepared to fund training in taking on demotivated teenagers? Or at least check that those of us taking them on are safe, insured and able?

Howard Davies, outgoing director-general of the CBI, did extend a cautious welcome to Mrs Shephard's plan. But I suspect he spoke for businesses with a large enough workforce to absorb work experience. Our area of rural Hampshire abounds with small businesses: they predominate in Salisbury, our nearest big town. Some schools already find it hard to get placements. Looking farther afield means muscling in on other schools' turf, and travel is a problem.

Daniel's 160 fellow pupils all found a niche for the fortnight, though intriguing ones like the theatre workshop and the archaeology dig mostly went to those who organised their own.

But I can guarantee the new-style pseudo-apprenticeships will be for the sorts of kids who don't find their own, and that the sports master in charge will be struggling to find places for them.

I know one local teenager who organised work experience at a transport firm, and a year later is back there working as a formal apprentice. But he is a rarity. There are few jobs for the motivated teenagers round here, let alone the demotivated ones.

For the business, it's a conundrum. Most 14-year-olds can't do much more than filing and photocopying without supervision. But even if they can contribute, we're assured by Mrs Shephard they won't be paid. "They won't be cheap labour," she says. Strictly speaking, she's right: they'll come absolutely free. The firms that exploited the YTS will be queuing up for this one.

Work experience should offer more: it means constant input. Does Mrs Shephard plan to persuade the Treasury to offset the cost? I would humbly suggest she keep work experience as it is, or go the whole hog and let the demotivated children leave school with vouchers for further education when they realise what they need.

If that is too radical, why not suggest schools let children run their own businesses - a weekly disco, a soft-drinks bar, the sweet shop? They might learn what it is to have initiative, to organise themselves, to strike a bargain, to keep the books.

Even before Mrs Shephard's pronouncements last week, work experience was a burgeoning industry.

But what businesses really want - and what the economy needs - is a literate, numerate workforce, ready to go.

The writer runs Jay Andrews Productions, a small film production company working for Channel 4 and the BBC.

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