The government is right to identify work experience as vital to high-quality technical education, but the cost of managing all those placements shouldn’t be underestimated, says Sam Parrett

The FE world – and indeed the wider education sector – welcomed last week’s budget statement, which included a £500 million windfall for technical education reforms.

Rarely the recipients of such a gift, all of us in FE have been eagerly studying the proposals to find out what it may really mean for us and our students.

The introduction of T-levels with 15 career-focused pathways is central to the reforms, which will consolidate thousands of vocational qualifications.

So far, so good. I am fully supportive of any initiative which aims to raise parity of esteem between academic and technical education, and I very much hope this will move things in the right direction.

Next year we’ll have to triple our work experience coordinators

But what will affect colleges, learning providers and businesses even more significantly are the proposals relating to work experience. Quite rightly, it is flagged as being crucial to all vocational education programmes, and it’s a vital theme in the new technical education reforms.

All 16- to 19-year-olds working on a new T-level programme will see their study hours increased by 50 per cent to around 900 hours a year, and will be required to do a three-month work placement as part of their course.

This is a significant undertaking for employers and colleges, particularly at a time when many businesses are already taking on more young people in the form of apprentices and trainees.

FE is generally much better than schools at providing more industry-led learning experiences. Many colleges having excellent links with employers, realistic learning environments and facilities, and teaching staff who are experts in their vocational field.

Good careers advice can help young people identify where their passion lies, and is the best way to reach their career goal.

But ultimately, if the government is going to realise its ambitious vision for work experience, we need to see real collaboration between employers and schools/colleges.

Not only must we ensure placements are worthwhile for young people, we need to make sure that employers also benefit in the short term as well as the long term. Having an extra pair of hands can be a hindrance if a student is uninterested and lacking in basic communication skills, but a keen, enthusiastic and motivated student can be a real asset to any business.

It also needs to be made easier for businesses to manage their placements and create strategies to ensure the young person gets a meaningful experience, for example: careful monitoring, mutually-agreed objectives and documented outcomes. Employers need to see that the time they are putting in will result in a skilled pipeline of talent further down the line.

What shouldn’t be underestimated is the cost of planning, organising, monitoring and managing placements

At my college, we are already preparing for the work experience revolution by setting up an employment and skills board, with 11 subgroups covering each industry area. The aim of these groups is to ensure that employers have direct input into the curriculum development, which in turn provides them with reassurance that our students will be equipped with the necessary skills.

Establishing a relationship with a diverse range of employers is not only helping us shape our study programmes effectively, but will also give these businesses an insight into the importance of providing young people with work-related experience.

The government is absolutely right to identify work experience as important. However, what shouldn’t be underestimated is the cost of planning, organising, monitoring and managing placements for, in our case, around 4,500 students.

Last year we had to triple the numbers of our maths and English teachers, next year we’ll have to do the same with our work experience coordinators!

This is no easy task for an already squeezed FE sector – and I can’t help feeling that the £500 million may be a drop in the ocean.

However, I do firmly believe that working collaboratively with employers will move things in the right direction – for both students and our economy.

 

Sam Parrett is principal and CEO of London South East Colleges