Cabinet Office blocked T-level ads during lockdown

The Cabinet Office blocked the Department for Education from promoting T-levels during the Covid-19 pandemic, despite first delivery of the new qualifications being just months away.

The decision to “turn off” advertising, which one communications expert for the FE sector said “doesn’t make sense”, was revealed in an updated “major projects portfolio” published today by the DfE.

The document rates the “confidence” of delivering T-levels successfully as amber/red – the fourth lowest on a five-point scale – largely because the “long-term sustainability of the programme has major challenges” and the “strategic landscape for T-levels is not considered to be stable”.

It reiterates that the government remains committed to the delivery of the first T-levels from September 2020 even though the current Covid-19 circumstances “bring additional challenges, particularly for providers and for employers who might offer industry placements”.

Despite these unforeseen challenges, the document states that Cabinet Office and Number 10 have “restricted government comms during the coronavirus outbreak, which has resulted in comms on T-levels being paused” and this will “impact our planned comms and engagement strategy, which is currently under review”.

It goes on to further explain that Cabinet Office “advised our communication campaign colleagues to turn off the social media advertising in March 20, due to Covid-19”, which has “led to an underspend in financial year 2019-20”.

The DfE document adds that due to Covid-19 “we may not be able to engage the employers needed to deliver the industry placements and therefore will not be able to deliver the expected amount of T-levels in September 2020, leading to an underspend”.

Ben Verinder, founder of Chalkstream Ltd and consultant in the FE sector, was perplexed by the move. “This is an odd decision given the circumstances,” he told FE Week.

“Our own recent research on public awareness of T-levels chimes with national studies – low awareness of T-levels among potential students and their influencers persists.

“So pausing online promotion at a time when young people are still finalising their plans doesn’t make sense. Particularly when offline communication opportunities are so limited due to Covid-19.”

Raising awareness of T-levels nationally has proved to be a huge challenge for the DfE.

Its £3 million “NexT Level” marketing campaign only launched in October 2019 – around the same time that a survey of more than 1,000 parents of children aged 11 to 18 commissioned by the Chartered Management Institute found that two-thirds had never heard of the qualifications.

The campaign, which involves commercials and adverts on TV and social media platforms, had been scheduled to run throughout the full 2019-20 academic year to help support providers recruit T-level learners.

The Cabinet Office refused to explain the rationale behind their decision to halt T-levels communications during the pandemic but did say the restrictions have now been lifted.

A spokesperson said: “Coronavirus is the biggest challenge the UK has faced in decades, and it is absolutely right for the government to focus communications on providing the public with the information it needs to fulfil its crucial role in tackling coronavirus.

“The T-levels campaign has been given approval and is now live to run over the summer to support recruitment in September.”

The Department for Education did not respond to requests for comment at the time of going to press.

The first three T-levels, in construction, digital and education and childcare, are due to be rolled out from September.

The much-vaunted new post-16 qualifications have been dubbed the “gold standard” of technical education, to match their academic equivalent A-levels.