Industry placements and T Levels - stepping up to meet the skills challenge

Blog posts

6 Dec 2018

Becci Newton

Joy Williams

Becci Newton, Deputy Director of Policy Research,
and Joy Williams, Research Fellow

Our evaluation of the Industry Placements Pilot, which has tested the work placements that will be integral to the government's new T Level programmes, has been published.

As the Skills Minister Anne Milton has said, T Levels could be the biggest reform to our vocational system in 70 years, and they are proceeding at pace – with the first three programmes (covering Construction, Digital, and Education and Childcare) due to be up and running from 2020 in 52 providers, and with further routes and further providers getting started over the ensuing three years. The latest action plan for implementing T Levels was also published this morning, setting out further detail on plans for 2020 and announcing the routes that will go live from 2021 (including their extension to Health and Science).

Government has been working hard with employers, sector bodies, providers and regulators to finalise the design of T Levels and to test different aspects of their delivery. The work placements element, though, is undoubtedly the most ambitious change – with placement learners due to be on-site with employers, taking part in structured and occupation-specific training and work experience, for at least 45 working days. Learners' T Level awards will be contingent upon the successful completion of placements.

We were delighted to be able to evaluate the first pilots of these new placements, and our report has a range of rich – and overall positive – findings from employers, learners, colleges and training providers. Overall, even at this early stage, we think that our research points to three key things for the next stages of testing:

  • Increased flexibility to provide a better mesh between business needs, the curriculum and assessment cycle, and learners' personal circumstances.
  • Improving information about the curriculum and learners' technical skills to help employers structure placement experiences.
  • More engagement with small and micro businesses to build understanding about what will lift barriers to their involvement.

The pilots also, inevitably, encountered challenges. This is of course part of the point of pilots, to test what works and does not and to identify what can be improved and what else might be required. In particular, we found that it was challenging to engage employers in some hard-to-reach industries with the short lead-in time available to the pilot; and in some industries, there was a mismatch between employers' expectations of skills levels and those that the learners possessed. Most crucially, 'retrofitting' placements into qualifications that were not designed to accommodate them was challenging – so as far as possible, the T Levels themselves will need to be designed in a way that overcomes these potential mismatches.

The Department is now incorporating the findings from our evaluation, and these have helped to shape the policy support model for placements as they roll out. This includes positioning the National Apprenticeship Service to build impetus and engagement amongst large employers and to aggregate the supply of placements across regions; and establishing a team that is focused on the needs of learners, with priority areas including additional support and special education needs and minimising effects of economic disadvantage (which is also touched on in today's action plan).

The work to establish industry placements is now being ramped up this year, through the Capacity and Delivery Fund, with 400 providers currently working to source placements for 10 per cent of their learners across the 11 technical routes.

Looking further ahead, making T Levels a success will depend on much more than just getting the placements element right. The content of T Levels needs to be on a par with the Apprenticeship gold standard, and support transitions to the workplace, higher education and/or apprenticeships. They need an occupational focus, but also to give people the problem-solving, thinking and learning skills needed for the future world of work. They need to be a genuine alternative to other routes for learners – including through to Levels 4 and 5 – while also (through the 'transition year') providing foundational skills, engagement and occupational focus for those who leave school not yet ready to study towards Level 3 qualifications. They need to be underpinned by high quality careers advice and guidance, so that young people can make informed occupational decisions at an earlier stage in their lives. And their quality and reputation needs to be recognised by employers, higher education institutions and learners.

None of this is straightforward. But it is necessary, and in our view T-Levels are the right direction of travel – not least to address the inevitable skills challenges that we will face both after Brexit and as the world of work changes.

There is much pessimism about the T Levels and placements – because of their ambition, their timescales, but also because we have been here and tried this before. But they deserve to be given the chance to succeed.

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Any views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Institute as a whole.