The government has refused to share evidence that it alleges will prove there will be enough T Level industry placements as the programme grows to tens of thousands of students.
Releasing that information would, in their words, “intrude” on the policymaking “safe space” which should be “sheltered from external distractions”.
Officials are also concerned that releasing the modelling would lead to the setting of a public target for the number of T Level students in each year of the rollout, something they are adamant they will not do.
A former adviser to multiple skills ministers criticised the secrecy, especially as the government continues with its plans to remove funding for most competing qualifications at level 3, such as BTECs, on the basis that T Levels will be a success.
But another ex-top DfE civil servant has backed the department, saying the reasoning is “understandable”.
Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi told FE Week in November he had seen evidence that shows enough employers will offer substantial 45-day work placements to tens of thousands of students each year when T Levels are fully rolled out.
His claim came amid concern from some college leaders who are delivering the first T Levels that they can’t find enough placements now for their small number of learners.
After an initial refusal from the DfE to share the modelling, the department has now rejected a freedom of information request from FE Week.
In its response, the DfE admitted there was a “general” public interest in being able to see if ministers are being “briefed effectively on the key areas of policy the department is taking forward”.
However, it deemed it more in the public interest to withhold the information to ensure the “formulation of government policy and decision-making can proceed in a self-contained, ‘safe space’ to ensure it is done well, sheltered from external interference or distractions.
“Without protecting the thinking space and the ability for ministers and senior officials to receive free and frank advice, there is likely to be a corrosive effect on the conduct of good government, with a risk that decision- and policy-making will become poorer as a result,” the DfE said.
Ed Reza Schwitzer, who worked in the DfE for six years in a variety of senior roles before becoming an associate director at public policy think tank Public First, defended the department’s refusal. “Whilst it is frustrating when ministers cite evidence that their departments are then unwilling to provide, it is understandable that officials have made this judgement,” he told FE Week.
“After all, it is vital that officials are able to advise ministers on deliverability of government policy honestly – and this would not be possible if such advice was made public.”
But Tom Richmond, a former adviser to two skills ministers, criticised the secrecy. “If the government removes funding for other level 3 qualifications, only for T Levels to stumble because they cannot secure enough placements, then the stability of the whole 16-to-19 system will be put at risk,” he said.
“On that basis, civil servants should be trying to reassure the sector with their supposedly robust evidence on the viability of compulsory work placements instead of keeping everyone in the dark.”
The DfE is also concerned that the release of industry placement modelling would “undoubtedly have the effect of setting a public target for the number of T Level students in each year of rollout”.
Such a target “would be likely to lead to both providers and government prioritising T Level student numbers above other factors, for example, the quality of courses being offered, which would be to the detriment of students studying these qualifications”.
The DfE has previously been criticised for shying away from setting T Level targets, including by Conservative MP and former skills minister John Hayes.
Jon Yates, who advised then education secretary Damian Hinds when he was developing T Level policy, questioned the reliability of any industry placement modelling. “In this case you’re asking people if they might take part in something they haven’t thought about, heard of, or know anyone who’s done it,” he said.
“It’s responsible to survey people here, but it’s probably about as reliable as asking people in February 2020, ‘would you support a national lockdown if there was a coronavirus?’”
T Levels began to roll out in 2020 and to date almost 7,000 students have enrolled.