The Prime work experience initiative has (rightly) garnered praise as a step in the right direction diversity wise. It formalises a commitment by member firms to provide:
“a number of work experience places that is not less than 50% of the number of training contract places that [they] offer each year and will achieve this by the end of the academic year 2012/13.”
And commits to a degree of professionalization of the work experience programme itself (seeking to ensure minimum levels of contact, pre-work experience preparation and some after-care, possibly by a “reunion event”. The commitment itself is not, to this reader, terribly clearly worded but it implies that this body of work experience participants must:
- attend a state (non-fee paying) school; and be school age students in either Year 9 to Year 13 in England and Wales, S2 to S6 in Scotland, or Year 3 to 5, or Lower and Upper Sixth in Northern Ireland; and are or have been eligible for free school meals (or where this information is difficult or sensitive to obtain, the participant attends a school that is significantly above the regional average in terms of number of students eligible for free school meals); or
- would be of the first generation in their immediate family to attend university.
It is difficult to assess objectively how significant a commitment this is. We might have a better idea, for instance, if firms were required to commit to a particular proportion of their work experience being students failing into this category. One expects also that the types of firm involved already commit to fairly high degrees of professionalism in their work experience programmes. It is also interesting that the commitment does not extend to the crucial summer work-experience programme for undergraduate law students which is vital to actual recruitment decisions.
This last point relates to one very important criticism that I have heard: that such programmes might just be window dressing. In particular, I am told that some firms with such programmes already run the programmes with great care and energy, identify brilliant students from non-standard backgrounds, and then find that partners will not recruit these students. I don’t think that kind of report is fatal to the success of this programme. Anything that increases the chances of these students is likely to increase their entry into the profession, but it is a warning that there may be something of a long haul. The one commitment which may mean Prime is not windowdressing is one that has not gained much attention so far. The members promise to:
Monitor on a firm by firm basis and share and publish best practice and data. Agree to fund and participate in an externally commissioned evaluation to develop and assure the quality of the commitments made under PRIME.
It is very important if PRIME is to be a meaningful initiative that such monitoring/evaluation takes place, is robust and focuses on outcomes. I’d like to hear what the authors of PRIME see as success. There are various ways of looking at this but there is also an acid test. They should commit to monitoring and publishing the recruitment decisions of member firms. That is not the only indicator of success (candidates might be more likely to gain entry elsewhere too) but it is the most central one. If they do this and the project shows an increase in entry of disadvantaged students from State schools, then the project has succeeded. If they do not, then the whispering about window dressing will continue. And rightly so.