The role of T Levels and Industry Placements in helping young people to weather the storm

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10 Jul 2020

Becci Newton

Becci Newton, Deputy Director, Public Policy Research

Follow @beccinewton13

The goals for T Levels are to deliver on longstanding ambitions for technical education to achieve a parity of esteem with the academic route. The Post-16 Skills Plan built on a series of reviews, including Wolf and Sainsbury, to increase quality and to ensure young people study towards qualifications that have value and worth in the labour market. However, alongside showing that the T Levels can sustainably deliver a high-quality vocational Level 3 that is valued by learners and employers, we need to decide if they have a fair chance of achieving this in the coronavirus recession before policy attention turns elsewhere - which has often been the problem for new vocational qualification programmes. Rather than build on existing developments, policymakers often decide only whole-sale change will solve the problem.

T Levels being launched into the recessionary environment has pros and cons - it will be particularly important to manage the challenges in order for T Levels to take root. The positives include the opportunity for young people to take-up substantial programmes of occupationally focused learning from age 16. The curriculum for each T Level pathway has been designed with employers to ensure close alignment with their needs. And close to 95% of the school cohort moves into full-time learning at 16, and many of these will be ready for Level 3 – even if they have not achieved English and maths, they can repeat these qualifications alongside their choice of academic or vocational provision. And for 17 year olds who have already completed a one-year course progression to the two year T Level would still be funded and provide a good option.

Equally, the industry placements at the heart of T Levels offer the potential to improve employers’ views on, as well as the work-readiness, of young people – and large numbers of providers are offering these as part of other vocational qualifications using Capacity and Delivery Funding, which is great news for school leavers who continue in full-time education. Connecting young people to employers is hugely important for later labour market transitions. We collected young people’s feedback as part of the Industry Placements Pilots Evaluation, and where placements worked well, young people said they had positive impacts on technical knowledge, awareness of workplace, workplace issues as well as behaviour, attitudes and confidence. Employers saw the value - and placements encouraged them to think more widely about their recruitment strategies and the talent pipeline.

Securing these placements, and ensuring they provide high quality learning experiences is crucial but not easy. The work to date indicates that Placement Coordinators play a vital role, but they are likely to face an even harder task this year, against the recessionary context. It is not clear yet that employers will be able to host learners’ placements to the same degree now. And while, what has proved eye-catching to date for employers is the opportunity to help develop the talent pipeline, the move into basic survival mode is shifting their attention, and could mean they are unable to free up staff resources for supervision and on-the-job training. The messaging to employers may need to change and new incentives be introduced.

The DfE has been exploring the impact of offering financial support to employers who offer placements, and information about the effectiveness of this will be crucial as part of understanding what works. Influencing messages could focus more on the additional capacity a placement learner would provide – however for this to be persuasive, learners will need to be work-ready. The latest placements guidance supports this – learners can spend up to 35 hours on work preparation activities which should be closely matched to the needs of occupations to ensure they can be productive on arrival with the employer.

As T Levels roll out, we need ensure we support young people to develop skills related to growth areas of the economy, and particularly local growth. The first three T Levels appear well matched to current and anticipated demand areas: there is little question that education and childcare will need staff and this sector is highly experienced in accommodating FE Level learners and part of workforce planning. The construction pathway should align young people well to the government’s ambition to build our way out of recession. Perhaps the greatest obstacle in this industry will be the tradition of using Apprenticeships, though the T Level provides the means to increase pipeline capacity at a scale never achieved by Apprenticeships. Finally, the demand for digital skills has been increasing as a result of coronavirus and global trends for automation. The obstacle this T Level needs to overcome – and it has been a tough challenge to date – centres on industry demand for graduate rather than FE level skills.

Overall, the current roll out plan should work ok, with industries currently ‘at risk’ not planned to start on T Levels for a couple of years yet. But is roll out moving fast enough now we face this recession? This year’s T Level delivery starts small, offered exclusively by high performing institutes. We may need to revisit the pace and scale of roll out in order to provide more high-quality places for young people to weather the storm.

We should also consider how T Levels might provide a high-quality means for young people aged 19-24 to shield from the recessionary labour market and upskill at the same time. The latest data shows that only 60.2% of young people have attained Level 3 by age of 19 so the need is there. Other experimental data suggests more needs to be done to upskill the ‘below Level 3’ group to avoid this being their highest qualification at age 25, as improved labour market outcomes result from Level 3+.

Certainly, 19-24s yet to study at Level 3 are entitled to full funding of their course fees – however, as many will have been working and are now in furlough, or unemployed, coverage of their living and housing costs is needed for full-time study to be a realistic option. With this, T Levels with their industry placements would offer a step up in skills and substantial engagement with an employer. In the mix of the Kickstart Programme, job, traineeship and apprenticeship subsidies, is an opportunity for a subsidised full-time skills option being lost? This could work well for at least part of the youth group hardest hit by the recession.

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