The 45-day placement requirement in the new T-levels is a laudable goal, but colleges need differentiated support, writes Andy Stittle

Work placements are a valuable undertaking: they set theory in context and develop sector-specific employability skills.

Like most colleges, Truro and Penwith welcomed the T-levels work placements pilot, which gave us the opportunity to identify a few problems that need to be addressed before final roll-out.

Lessons from the pilot are crucial if we are to ensure that T-levels do not follow earlier failed attempts at reform to vocational and technical qualifications.

Engagement with employers, given the small scale of the pilot, was not an issue – it simply involved building on our existing employer relationships. However, we did come up against numerous challenges.

Typical of rural areas, our students travel significant distances to study and work, many for over three hours every day. Rural bus services are limited and costly. With a flat-rate payment allocated to a work placement travel and no rural uplift, this is a major problem.

Securing high-quality placements that are “affordable” in time and cost to students is a challenge. Cornwall is characterised by rurality and low productivity. Access to some sectors is difficult and the reason why substantial numbers of our students eventually leave the county.

The 45-day minimum requirement is highly problematic for a large tertiary college in an area with predominantly micro, small and medium enterprises. Significant block release or timetabling college attendance over three days a week in one year, for example, would mean that many staff teaching across comprehensive provision (technical/vocational and academic) would be unavailable. Even in the pilot phase, a minority project can dominate timetabling structures at the cost of other provision.

Quality placements are potentially as demanding on employers as apprenticeships.

When the initiative is rolled out across all curriculum areas, we suspect from conversations with employers that saturation point could be reached. The period also rules out the “one-day-a-week” placement model often favoured by employers.

Furthermore, many smaller employers typically secure orders three to four months in advance and cannot commit to placements further ahead than that. The opportunity of a longer-term placement is valued by many employers however; it develops the student as an effective team member, though it can result in an offer of employment and leaving the college course.

In many sectors, we have set up sector employer representation groups.

Quality placements are potentially as demanding on employers as apprenticeships

These have proved particularly useful in keeping employers abreast of the new developments and in addressing potential hurdles. Some of these solutions, such as sharing the work experience between two employers, need to be addressed in final roll-out. They are particularly keen on the model of a qualification which progresses to a higher-level apprenticeship, as this is where their skills gap resides.

However employers are keen that the college retains its own commercial town-centre operations, such as a hair and beauty salon or restaurant, as an eligible placement.

These provide a range of vocationally specific yet rounded employment skills by rotating job roles. Employers are very complimentary about the range of work-ready skills students acquire in these venues, something difficult to facilitate in a busy small enterprise.

The enhanced placements align particularly well to occupational courses with clear progression to employment or apprenticeships. Students on the pilot enjoy and value their placement. It builds aspiration, informs career choice,s signals future options and can enhance work ethic in college.

However, additional funding simply to meet additional delivery hours will not be sufficient.

Only financially healthy colleges will truly be able to meet the new technical reforms, and with half the sector in deficit, this needs to be addressed through wider review, including: increased flexibility or changes to address student demand, the time limitations of a busy small business, the diversity of courses and regional complications.

Andy Stittle is director of teaching and learning at Truro and Penwith College