T-level students in rural areas still at disadvantage, despite DfE ‘tinkering’

The flexibilities added to the controversial industry placement in T-levels are “helpful” but they still leave rural counties at a “distinct disadvantage”, according to a principal involved in the pilots of the programme.

Last week the government launched a “package of support” to encourage more employers to offer the 315-hour minimum placements that students will need to complete in order to pass the new technical qualifications.

The biggest change was that placement opportunities can be offered with up to two employers, as opposed to one long one, as originally planned.

For students with special education needs and disabilities, they will be allowed to use on-site facilities, such as a college-run restaurant or hair salon, for a maximum of 105 hours of the placement, while students studying at young offender institutions can complete their full placements in these simulated environments.

Any student’s part-time working hours can also be counted towards the required hours of placement, as long as the job is “occupationally related to the students’ chosen specialism at level 3 and it takes place at an environment away from the provider setting and the student’s normal learning environment”.

A pilot using £7 million will also be run in 2019-20, ahead of the T-levels roll-out, to trial the offer of financial incentives to employers to see if it encourages more people to sign up.

The DfE also confirmed placements will be formally recorded in hours – a minimum of 315 – as opposed to 45 days. It said that this “better reflects how industry professionals in some industries work and allows for shorter working days where needed”.

There is no extra support for student transport, which leaders have called for.

Jo Maher, principal of Boston College, which is involved in the T-level pilots, said rural counties “remain at a distinct disadvantage due to no movement on the 315-hour minimum requirement and rural transport issues, which result in long travel-to-work patterns”.

“Rural deprivation levels mean that many learners are unable to access a car and are heavily reliant on sparse and lengthy bus routes,” she told FE Week.

“We have already had to purchase a minibus to address transport issues for our pilot, which is part of the capacitybuilding funding scheme, and that was for just 10 per cent of eligible learners.”

Maher said her college has more than 600 eligible T-level learners moving forward, but if the industry relevant to their T-level is in the nearest city, not town, this “impacts both their placement and ability to secure part-time work that meets the ‘relevance’ requirement of the new flexibilities”.

“Furthermore, there is lots of employer support in the changes but nothing for providers, who are already stretched working to support their existing learners,” she continued.

“There are subject specialisms, such as creative and design, that would be better served with a proportion of the hours conducted back at the provider, for example, working on industry-assigned live briefs or employer project requests, as many of these jobs are freelance or home-based in the industry.”

Ian Pryce, the principal of Bedford College, said the DfE deserves credit for trying to be flexible but “placement remains a problem”.

“Most of our students work part-time and earn good money. They view 315 hours of unpaid work as an unfair burden, not a selling point,” he told FE Week.

“Measuring hours is the wrong way to go, too, it has to be about quality of experience, not length. It feels like tinkering, rather than addressing the unattractiveness and insecurity of placements of this length.”

Other flexibilities announced by the DfE include “bespoke ‘how to’ guides, workshops and practical hands-on support for employers – designed alongside industry bodies to make it as easy as possible for them to offer placements”.

“This new package of support is designed to help ensure we can deliver high-quality placements for every T-level student from 2020,” said education secretary Damian Hinds.

The first three T-levels, to be taught from September 2020, will be in digital, education and construction.