DfE launches last-minute T-level placements research

The government has embarked on a very last-minute mission to find out if students could fail to secure the mandatory T-level industry placement.

A tender to evaluate the controversial component of the new post-16 technical qualifications went live last week, with fewer than six months to go until students take their first class.

The Department for Education’s procurement documents said the timing makes this evaluation “particularly vital”.

It will focus on support measures announced last May to help providers and employers deliver T-levels, which included flexibilities in the mandatory 315-hour industry placement so learners could split the placement across two employers, and special allowances for certain routes: learners on the construction route, for instance, can complete a charitable project for 105 hours of their placement.

This seems to show that there are still concerns about gaps in provision

That’s in addition to £55 million in capacity and delivery funding handed out in 2019/20, after the DfE released £60 million in 2018/19, and adjustments in the 16-to-19 discretionary bursary fund “to account for the additional costs students might face due to participating in industry placements”, like travel and subsistence.

One of the questions intended to be answered by the evaluation is: “Are there any routes where sourcing placements is still challenging, or placements are not deliverable? If so, why?”

Three T-levels – in the digital, construction and education routes – will start in September 2020, with more being rolled out every year until 2023.

As the evaluation contract end date has been set as October 31, the DfE will not know what further support will be required until learners are already sitting the qualification.

The National Union of Students’ vice president for further education Juliana Mohamad-Noor said: “Tendering for some evaluation work just a few months from their beginning seems to show that there are still concerns about gaps in provision.”

But the union, Noor says, is “glad to see the government looking at how to make placements flexible” and they hope to see bursaries are used “to ensure cost is no barrier”.

A DfE spokesperson called the evaluation “routine” and added that since the launch of an industry placement pilot in 2017/18 they have commissioned several evaluations of placement delivery, as well as a further review of the available support.

The industry placement has become the most controversial element on the level 3 qualifications, with Scarborough Sixth Form College saying they dropped out of delivering the digital route last year partly because of the difficulty they had in securing sufficient numbers of placements.

Boston College principal Jo Maher previously told FE Week her provider had not signed up for T-levels as they had found placements “a challenge for rural areas” like theirs.

Fellow Lincolnshire principal Janet Meenaghan, of New College Stamford, has also said making placements work in the area was “really, really difficult” because a lot of the county’s businesses were either small or micro, many with just one or two staff members.

An earlier review of the support measures put in place by the DfE in 2018/19, including the £60 million for the capacity and delivery fund and £5 million invested in the National Apprenticeships Service to link employers with providers, is due to be
published this spring.

The initial T-level rollout was delayed by 12 months in 2018 amid worries about its pace, yet at that time the then-education secretary Damian Hinds refused a request by the DfE’s permanent secretary Jonathan Slater to delay their start from 2020 to 2021.

Bidders have until Monday, March 16 to express an interest in the new tender. The successful bidder will be selected in the week beginning April 27. The contract value is unknown.