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    Since the beginning of the year, we’ve been doing a lot of work around T-Levels, much of which has focused on demonstrating how the routes can be mapped to local labour markets. Over the past few weeks we’ve been reaching out to colleges – both clients and non-clients – to test our ideas out and to find out how the sector is dealing with some of the challenges that T-Levels are presenting.

    Having spoken to a good many people in the sector, two issues have stood out above all others: firstly, work placements seem to be causing a lot of concern, and secondly most, if not all, colleges we have spoken to have said that they intend to do all 15 T-Level routes. I want to address these two issues, but let me preface my comments by saying that although they might at first appear to be entirely unrelated issues, they are in fact intricately connected.

    With regard to work placements, let’s just remind ourselves what they actually are. In last year’s Report of the Independent Panel on Technical Education (also known as the Sainsbury Review), the authors recommended that:

    “In addition to work taster or short-duration work experience opportunities in their first year, every 16-18 year old student following a two-year college-based technical education programme should be entitled to a high-quality, structured work placement. Successful completion of this work placement should be a requirement for full certification at the end of the study programme.”

    Shortly before this year’s budget, the Government confirmed that they would be following these recommendations, with each T-Level qualification including a three-month “high quality work placement.” In other words, no work placement, no T-Level.

    In theory, work placements sound like a really good idea, but implementation is unlikely to be simple, as the Sainsbury Review itself acknowledged:

    “We recognise that delivering this recommendation in practice is far from trivial. We are suggesting that up to 250,000 17-year-olds could require work placements. We recommend the Government makes additional funding available to colleges to support work placements for technical education students on college-based study programmes.” 

    The Government has indeed made additional funds available (£500 million was promised for T-Levels in the March budget), and yet this still doesn’t solve the problem from the college perspective. It’s all very well the money being made available, but the fact is that colleges still have to go out and engage employers to make work placements happen. It hardly needs stating, but employers aren’t going to be coming to colleges, cap in hand, begging to be allowed to take on a student for three months. And this is the issue that we’ve been hearing time and time again in our conversations with colleges: How are we going to go about securing work placements for our students?

    The answer to this question lies in part in tackling the answer to the second point that I mentioned at the beginning. As I said, it seems to be the intention of most colleges to put all 15 T-Level routes on, but I would question if this is necessarily a sensible or even sustainable approach. For a start, the whole point about T-Levels are that they are meant to be employer-led, and so starting with the assumption that “we are going to put on all 15” without first finding out what local demand for those 15 actually is, is somewhat counter-productive to the purpose of T-Levels (having said this, please don’t misunderstand me. It could be that in some local economies, it actually would be appropriate to run all 15). But even more crucially, if it is a requirement of T-Levels that they must have a work placement affixed to them, then this means that colleges may well be wasting their time trying to run T-Levels where there are few, if any, employers in their area who can take on a work placement student.

    In other words, the issue of how many T-Levels a college puts on, and the issue of work placements, must be dealt with together, and since the common denominator behind both issues is essentially whether there is sufficient employer demand, what this suggests is the following:

    Firstly, it really is crucial that colleges understand employer demand in their area, not only because T-Levels are all about putting employers in the driving seat, but also because practically they are going to have to find employers willing to take on work placement students.

    Secondly, having understood local employer need, a college can kill two birds with one stone: not only does it mean that it can properly react to employer demand for each T-Level, but it is also far better positioned to engage employers for work placements.

    Let me end by saying that engaging with colleges on T-Levels has been a refreshing experience for us, as it has given us a window on the real problems that the sector is grappling with, as opposed to the ones we think you’re grappling with. We’d love to engage some more, and so I wanted to end by inviting you to join us for a webinar on 29th June, where we’ll be looking at the issue of work placements in more depth, and soliciting questions and feedback. This is free to join, and you can find out more details here.

    Andy Durman, Managing Director Emsi UK

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