Good work experience is vital, but are businesses ready to deliver it?

 21 February 2018

Melanie Shee, Partnership Manager for the North East, talks about her early career memories of work experience and asks if the creative sector is ready for T-Levels.

Good quality work experience is vital for students and businesses
Good quality work experience is vital for students and businesses

In the run-up to our 2018 National Conference, we are running a series of think-pieces by sector leaders about key issues affecting our creative industries and the future of the workforce. 

A few weeks ago I was in Newcastle catching up with a former colleague for lunch. We met near the Side Gallery, a great gallery which is currently hosting an exhibition on Lenin. 

My visit took me back to when I was a student at a further education college studying for a BTEC Diploma in Art & Design. Every Saturday morning I’d go to my work experience placement in a theatrical hire agency, which was based next door to the Side Gallery.

I had spent my late teens and early twenties designing, making and selling clothes.  I was certain I was going to have a career in fashion - so imagine my disappointment when, during my course, I came to the realisation that the cut throat world of fashion was not for me after all! 

This hands-on learning opportunity was, to say the least, an improvised experience.

A change of course

I had, however, discovered a love of researching clothes and had mastered the craft of pattern cutting and making. But I wondered what I could do to utilise these skills going forward. 

As I also had a passion for film I decided I would study Costume at university, with the aim of applying my skills in the film industry - a perfect combination.

In order to pass my college course I needed to develop and refine my costume making skills whilst also producing a final fashion collection. I would also need to demonstrate my new found passion for Costume in interviews with universities and gaining suitable work experience was one way to do this.

I spoke to one of my tutors who happened to have a contact in a theatrical costume hire agency in Newcastle.  I contacted them and was delighted when they offered me work experience on a Saturday morning.

Work experience

Each weekend I would turn up at their little studio and be handed a wide variety of costumes to work on for hire by local theatre companies.  Looking back this hands-on learning opportunity was, to say the least, an improvised experience.

I had no health and safety induction, my tutors didn’t ask me how the work experience was going and not once was a safe-working-environment assessment made. All I did was sit at a sewing machine and sew.

I gained no insight into their business or the real world of costume making - such as pattern cutting or how they got clients, costed their work and promoted their business. In retrospect this was a real shame.

I am pleased to say that this would not happen today. Both further and higher education institutions have moved on and come to understand the importance of ensuring that work experience is safe and meaningful. All necessary health and safety checks are made at the start, along with some attempt to suitably match the employer with the learner.

Real life work experience is a growing ambition for the Government as part of its Post-16 reforms. 


Real life work experience is a growing ambition for the Government as part of its Post-16 reforms. The new T-Levels, which are gradually being phased in as an alternative to A-Levels, will feature a mandatory 40-65 day relevant work experience requirement.

Work placements will take place outside of the college environment and will be closely shaped in partnership with receiving employers.

Whilst Creative & Cultural Skills welcomes this move, and sees huge value in directly relating and applying occupational study to the workplace, there is no doubt that this is an ambitious ask.

It is particularly ambitious for a sector like ours that is predominantly clustered around major cities. Over 75 per cent of creative industry companies are based in and around London and the South East.

I know, first-hand, the important impact that work experience can have on one’s skills, as well as the positive role work experience students can play in a business. But we urge caution in the design and execution of any formal work experience offer.

Many of the colleges within our National Skills Academy  have told me that they still have issues with work experience in our sector, namely finding companies that are willing to offer this in the first place. How is the Government going to realistically ensure work experience for everyone undertaking a T-Level related to Creative and Design occupations?

Call for T-Level panel members

You may have seen the recent article from Pauline Tambling, Creative & Cultural Skills CEO, which calls for “more engagement between the post-16 education sector and our industry to make it work”. 

We see the Technical Education Reforms as a chance to finally get skills development right for our sector. For that to happen business, government and education professionals have to be fully involved in their formation.

We see the Technical Education Reforms as a chance to finally get skills development right for our sector.

The Department for Education is seeking panel members who will develop the outline content for new T levels. There are already 6 T-Level panels in place and at the end of March recruitment will open for panels on Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care; Business and Administration; Hair and Beauty; Creative and Design; and Catering and Hospitality.

The Institute for Apprenticeship’s occupational maps demonstrate the occupations that panel members need to have experience in.

We would encourage anyone who has the skills and experitse required to get involved with this process and help to future proof the creative industries.

More information on work experience

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