Article: Protected Work Experience: A way into work or education for disadvantaged young people

First Published: 20th December 2018 | Author: Brian Creese | Tags: , , ,

Brian Creese recently conducted an evaluation of The Protected Work scheme, an initiative offering longer and more structured work experience to disadvantaged young people. Drawing on a small sample of data, Creese suggests there is merit in using similar approaches in other organisations and local authorities delivering similar schemes.

This article presents the findings of an evaluation of The Protected Work Experience scheme delivered by Elmbridge Youth Support Services (now Elmbridge Family Services) and supported by Walton Charity between 2014 and the end of 2017. The project’s aim was to support the most vulnerable young people back into work, education or training by providing work experiences which was longer, more structured and better rewarded than the traditional route.


The provision of work experience for upper secondary school pupils and college students has been a popular intervention for over 40 years. It is largely seen as a way of preparing young people for moving into the world of work. In 1973, the “Education (Work Experience) Act” clarified the law to allow pupils to undertake placements on employers’ premises during the last year of compulsory education. By the end of the 1980s there was an assumption that all pupils should have work experience before the age of 16. National guidelines for work experience were first published in 1998 and in 2004 work-related learning became a statutory requirement in Key Stage 4 (Mann, 2012).

Despite the ubiquity of work experience programmes, there is little research on their effectiveness in actually delivering on these varied expectations. There is also little rigorous research on what constitutes effective work experience. Most of the available research tends to be limited in nature and often focused on specific interventions. An example is the Department for Education research report “Work experience and related activities in schools and colleges” (DoE, 2017) which identified a range of approaches that were felt to support the delivery of effective work-related activities. These included availability of schemes, identification of work experience, preparatory activities and monitoring, evaluation and review. The Higher Education Careers Services report “The impact of work experience on student outcomes: implications for policy and practice” (McCulloch et al, 2014) similarly recognises the necessity of work experience being ‘high quality’.

It is interesting to note the types of impact on young people which are most often cited and considered to have the most important impact. Many of these could be considered interchangeable with the ’soft skills’ required for employment such as communication and interpersonal skills, increased confidence, team working and time management skills.

An element of the Protected Work Experience project is mentoring. While defining mentoring, especially in the context of disadvantaged young people remains problematic, there is general agreement that it is, in essence, a trusting and caring relationship which underpins its effectiveness (Roberts, 2000; Pawson, 2004). Once again, however, there is little convincing research demonstrating the effectiveness of mentoring or defining effective mentoring practice. Research is too often restricted to illustrating the success or otherwise of the desired outcomes from specific mentoring programmes. These usually rely on reporting by mentors or programme staff, and sometimes on self-reporting by young people, both of which tend to overestimate positive results (Colley, 2006).

Perhaps a scheme which is most similar to Protected Work Experience is Supported Internships. From August 2013, all young people in full or part-time education aged 16 to 19 have been expected to follow a study programme – a coherent, personalised learning programme that offers breadth, depth and progression. A supported internship is a study programme aimed at young people aged 16 to 24 who have a statement of special educational needs or an educational, health and social care (EHC) plan, who want to move into employment and need extra support to do so (DoE, 2014, revised 2017). However, supported internships do not include payments, either to employers or trainees, and must include education or training including maths and English (Creese et al, 2016).

Lisa Russell (2014) alludes to a possible solution by arguing that support for young people seeking employment could be improved by adopting holistic approaches matched more specifically to the needs of the young person and the employer. Young people not in employment, education or training often have complex pathways into work, and those deemed ‘hard to reach’ often have few qualifications and lack relevant work experience and the social capital necessary to find creative or relevant work contacts (Russell, 2014).

Protected Work Experience

The Protected work experience project was founded on seven key concepts established through feedback from young people:

  • There was a gap in the local market between traditional work experience placements and current traineeships, apprenticeships or starting positions.
  • Work related activity was the preferred developmental opportunity for some young people (rather than formal education).
  • Local opportunities enable young people to reside in the local community.
  • The employer could receive up to £1000 spread incrementally over the three month period. This incentive was in recognition of the level of support each young person was likely to need within the placement.
  • Trainees receive a fixed level of expenses that recognise their positive contribution to the workplace.
  • The capacity for permanent employment would be raised for the employer and young person during the three month placement.
  • The placement was flexible in the number of hours and where appropriate, kept under the threshold for any reduction in claimed benefits. This reflects the precarious nature of some family incomes and the capacity of individual young people.

The young people who took part in the project had a range of severe needs, ranging from major mental health difficulties, including suicidal tendencies and self-harming, through to criminal behaviour and being victims of sexual abuse. Almost all reported a severe lack of self-confidence and self-esteem, communication issues, being very withdrawn and suspicious of their peers and paranoia around public transport.

The main part of the scheme involved setting up work placements for 12 weeks, with trainees expected to work between 12 hours and 25 hours a week, and payments made to both employers (up to £1000 for a full 12 weeks) and the trainees themselves. Employers and trainees met beforehand for an informal interview process to further legitimise the experience as work. This represents a significantly different and innovative approach from other work experience schemes.

In total just 14 young people went through the scheme. One reason for this seems to have been the restructuring and constant change to the Surrey Youth Services and a national change of focus away from NEETs following the raising of the participation age in 2016.


The total expenditure was £10,816, with just under £5,000 of that being paid to the trainees and just over £6,000 to the employers. The total employers’ payments were relatively low because not all employers wished to claim all their expenses, or in one case, could not do so because of their relationship with Surrey County Council. These figures provided an average cost of just over £770 per young person for the project as a whole. However, the funding criteria for trainees changed during the project, so perhaps a more realistically average expenditure was £920 per placement when looking at the later trainees in isolation.


A full case study was produced for every trainee on the scheme. Initially these case studies consisted of intermediate as well as final reports from the social worker and the employer, but they became purely a final report in the later studies. In conducting the evaluation, we analysed these case studies, conducted follow up interviews with three employers and with Surrey Youth Services and were able to view a video produced by one trainee about their experience on the project.

Analysis of these case studies showed that 10 of the trainees completed their placements and in 10 cases employers were satisfied with their work and conduct. In 11 cases there was clear evidence of progression with 4 young people moving into education or training and 8 (possibly 9) entering paid employment. It was not possible to gain follow-up notes in all cases and, given the difficult nature of this cohort, it is not certain that the progress shown above was maintained.

The case studies produced evidence that all trainees gained in self-confidence, self-esteem and communications skills, a sense of responsibility and ability to get to work on time. Many of these young people also reported moving on and being able to leave all support services which undoubtedly represents a significant success.


The Protected Work Experience project has shown that a pioneering, innovative approach to getting disadvantaged young people to engage with work or further education and training can be successful, even with those suffering from multiple and severe disadvantages. There is clear evidence not only of young people acquiring the ‘soft’ work related skills often cited by employers as necessary, but of improving mental health conditions, and even radically changed lives. The employers spoken to were also enthusiastic about the experience, even when they found themselves working with young people exhibiting very challenging behaviours.

An important factor in the scheme was the willingness to accept initial failure. Not every trainee thrived in their first placement, but those running the scheme were prepared to try again. Others had ‘successful’ placements, gaining skills and building up a good rapport with the employer, but did not subsequently move on to employment or further education. As noted above, those with such challenging needs tend to not make regular, linear progress; but have ups and downs and diversions before being able to cope with the adult world. Recognising and supporting these failures is an important element of the scheme.

Lisa Russell (2014) noted the importance of supporting the whole person rather than focus exclusively on a specific outcome, in this case the young person gaining employment or entering education or training. Although none of the employers interviewed saw their role as mentors, we can confidently say that they exhibited a “trusting and caring relationship” with their trainees, the basis of a mentoring relationship. Their support for their trainees was not confined to work related issues, but embraced their whole being, travel issues, educational needs, coping with home life and differing types of relationships. In almost all of the case studies trainees were in a better place as people after their placements and more ready to succeed in the future.

There are a number of elements which appear to be key to the success of the scheme:

  • The project coordinator needed to be able to make a good match between the employer and trainee. An interview process was seen as important as it gave both sides a chance to see the other and also validated the placement as being a ‘job’.
  • Employers were genuinely concerned about providing real work experience, not simply administration, cleaning or filing. In the café, trainees were encouraged to bake, find and even create new recipes. In the retirement village, trainees were either actively involved in caring for residents or working alongside other employees doing maintenance projects. In the video company, trainees were able to build creative portfolios of art work.
  • For this reason, the 12 week timescale was seen as an important factor. It makes the experience for both sides about real work and contributing to the company rather than simply a short visit.
  • The payments were seen as an important element, both for employers and trainees. For employers, the payments recognised that they were expected to put in the extra time and effort to work with the young people. Payment to the trainees was essential to enable them to take up places and it made the experience different from school or other training. Receiving a ‘wage’ also proved beneficial to trainees’ self-esteem.

Despite the disappointingly small number of trainees who participated, it seems clear that there is great potential in others exploring the methodology of this approach with similar cohorts of disadvantaged young people. It would be good to see further schemes attempted for groups who might benefit from a similar more structured approach to work experience. The nature of the cohort ensures that such schemes will be small, but it should be possible to collate results from a number of pilots to demonstrate the effectiveness of the approach.

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Last Updated: 29 January 2019


Colley, H. (2006) Mentoring for young people not in education, employment or training: a NEET solution, but to whose problems? Paper commissioned by the Nuffield Review of 14-19 Education and Training.

Creese, B., Litster, J. and Mallows, D. (2016). A Strategic Guide for the delivery of GCSE English and Maths to the 16-19 cohort. Education and Training Foundation.

Department for Education (2014, revised 2017). Supported Internships.

Department for Education (2017), Work experience and related activities in schools and colleges Research report, Nat Cen Social Research.

Mann, A. (2012). Work Experience: impact and delivery – Insights from the evidence.  Education and Employers Taskforce.

McCulloch, A., Artess, J. and Herrmann, K. (2014) Higher Education Careers Services Unit

Pawson, R. (2004) Mentoring relationships: an explanatory review, London: ESRC

UK Centre for Evidence Based Policy and Practice.

Roberts, A. (2000) Mentoring revisited: a phenomenological reading of the literature, Mentoring and Tutoring 8 (2) 145-170.

Russell, L. (2014). Formerly NEET Young People’s Pathways to Work: A Case-Study Approach. Power and Education, 6(2), 182-196. (


Brian Creese is project manager at Walton Charity, having previously worked at UCL Institute of Education for 10  years where he specialised in adult literacy and numeracy. He is also co-director of the Centre for Education in the Criminal Justice System.