The government is looking to the European Social Fund to help tackle the barriers that rural areas face with T-levels.
A tender worth £500,000 was launched by the Department for Work and Pensions on Monday for an organisation to “broker opportunities” with small employers in the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding region for young people to “engage” in industry placements.
Its ‘call specification’ explains the area is a rural economy where small and micro businesses account for over 97 per cent of all businesses, higher than the UK average.
There is a danger that placements may not be accessible to all T-level students without intervention
“Young people living in rural communities often find it hard to access learning and training opportunities due to lack of rural public transport infrastructure and there is a danger that high quality, relevant industry placements may not be accessible to all T-level students without intervention,” it adds.
Extended structured placements lasting a minimum of 315 hours, or 45 to 60 working days, have proved controversial since they were announced for T-levels in 2016. Many sector leaders still fear that students in rural areas will not have enough opportunities due to a lack of availability.
But the use of the European Social Fund to help high achieving 16 and 17 year olds onto already highly funded courses will raise eyebrows, especially as the Department for Education often boasts that £500 million a year will be provided to help T-level providers “meet the costs of additional teaching hours and organising industry placements”.
The ESF is funding that the UK received, as a member state of the EU, to increase job opportunities and help people to improve their skill levels in “priority areas”, particularly those who find it difficult to get work.
The current funding round is worth about €3 billion (£2.3 billion) across England over the period from 2014 to 2020. Once the UK leaves the EU, it will lose access to the ESF, and all contracted projects agreed before 2020 must be completed by 2023.
The DWP tender document states the priority area that this procurement falls under is “Skills for Growth: Improving the labour market relevance of education and training systems”.
It adds that the European Structural and Investment Funds strategy “seeks to address the barriers relating to rural isolation which prevents access to initiatives and opportunities that are more easily available in urban environments” – such as T-level industry placements.
A DWP spokesperson insisted that ESF funding is “not being used to develop or provide provision of T-levels, as that is already covered by central government funding from the DfE”.
In this project the ESF funding will be used to “support local SME’s to promote T-levels, helping boost take-up, develop a more skilled local workforce and tackle youth unemployment”.
“Any organisations applying for ESF funding where there is central government funding in place, would need to evidence how any ESF funded support will complement that central government funded provision, rather than replace it,” he added.
Asked if the DWP expects to offer up more ESF funding to support T-levels, the spokesperson said: “While DWP administers the ESF across England, specific ESF funding decisions are made on a case by case basis at a local level in line with local growth priorities.”
The tender explains that the DWP is “seeking a programme of support to SME employers to provide appropriate industry placements”.
“Due to the length and robustness of industry placements, high levels of employer engagement will be required, so that demands for sufficient high quality relevant placements can be met,” it said.
“This programme of activity will establish a robust industry placement programme for T-level learners that will enable those young people to put into practice and further develop the knowledge, practical skills and behaviours that they have learnt in the classroom and will work to support learners in identified secondary schools/learning providers in the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding region.”
The first three T-levels for digital, education and construction will be taught from September 2020 by 50 providers.
Digital is likely to be the hardest pathway to find employers to offer industry placements. Seven of of the first 50 providers will be based in Yorkshire and the Humber, and five of them will offer the digital T-level: Barnsley College, Notre Dame Catholic Sixth Form College, Scarborough Sixth Form College, Shipley College of Further Education and York College.
The deadline for applications to the DWP tender is 14 October 2019.