Ethnic minority learner numbers on the construction T Level are actually quite good

19 Sep 2021, 6:00

Ethnic minority students on the construction T Level is above the industry average – but scrapping the BTEC could be a problem, writes Hassana Ahmed

Since the Department for Education introduced a move from BTECs to T Levels in 2020, there has been low uptake for construction.  

Take June this year: the design, surveying and planning for construction T Level had the lowest uptake in comparison with the other pathways, including education and childcare and digital, production, design and development. 

This is not entirely unexpected, for a number of reasons.   

Firstly, the construction courses, along with the other aforementioned courses, launched in September 2020. A further seven T Levels are launching in September 2021 and the remainder in the following two academic years. 

This meant there was a tight timeframe for the new pathways to be marketed to students, and especially not face-to-face.   

The phased implementation of these programmes also means that the current data is not representative of the initiative as a whole.  

There is also a lack of funding for transport. Those students living in rural areas or at an economic disadvantage will struggle to access colleges running T Levels and work placements far away from them. 

Another factor is the huge impact that the Covid-19 pandemic has had on the construction industry.   

The industry overwhelmingly requires a physical presence, so the ability to take on apprentices has been greatly hampered as the number of actual workers on-site has fallen.   

Of course 20 per cent of the construction T Level is placement-based, meaning that these courses have also largely been unviable while social distancing measures have been in place. 

A document published by the DfE in July 2020 admitted that, due to the pandemic,  “we may not be able to engage the employers needed to deliver the industry placements”. 

Meanwhile, figures from this newspaper show that the percentage of ethnic minority backgrounds studying the construction T Level as of June 2021 stands at just above 14 per cent. 

As FE Week has reported, Jeremy Crook, chief executive of the Black Training and Enterprise Group, said this reveals “low levels of ethnic minority participation” which “should ring alarm bells for the government”. 

However, we must remember this figure is still marginally higher than the proportion that currently make up the ethnic minority average of the construction industry. 

According to the ONS, in 2019 just 5.4 per cent of construction workers were from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds (BAME). 

It is also higher than the overall percentage of BAME students in further education, which stands at 9.6 per cent. 

But, while the figures are not a surprise in one sense, we hope that more is done to attract students of minority ethnicities to the sector.  

The government also needs to think carefully about its moves to scrap BTECs. 

The Social Market Foundation that found 37 per cent of black students enter university with only BTEC qualifications.  

The government must look again into the impact of scrapping BTECs so soon after introducing T Levels, otherwise BAME students could suffer. 

In the meantime, making sure that students are aware of T Levels is now vital. A survey from the Chartered Management Institute in 2019 showed that only 29 per cent of parents of 11 to 18-year-olds were aware of T Levels.  

An advertising campaign was launched by the DfE but was suspended during the pandemic. The suspension lasted from March 2020 until two months before the launch of the construction T Level. 

This decision will have had a critical impact on student awareness of T Levels. 

Additionally, this route must properly equip graduating students for industry.  

According to the Construction Industry Training Board, more people than usual are expected to start FE construction courses because of a lack of apprenticeship recruitment opportunities as the SMEs who employ 72 per cent of apprentices continue to recover.  

So, to maintain access to a skilled workforce, industry will need to increase the number of learners it converts from FE courses.  

Currently, of the approximately 36,000 students per year who undertake construction courses in FE, only 41 per cent move directly into an industry job or apprenticeship. 

It is crucial that the government ensures there are diverse routes for BAME students to join construction courses and transfer into industry – and find they are in an inclusive environment when they arrive.

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