Just £500,000 of a £7 million budget earmarked to entice employers to take on early T Level students for industry placements was spent.
An evaluation report of the “employer support fund” pilot, which offered businesses £750 to cover their tangible placement costs in four regions in England between 2019 and 2021, found the grants supported 843 placements against a target of 32,466.
Just 8 per cent of the total budget was used.
The incentives were upped to £1,000 per placement for the 2021/22 academic year as they were rolled out across the country, and ministers have indicated they could be extended to future years amid calls for support from employer representative bodies.
But today’s findings, which do not examine take up of the bigger incentives in 2021/22, could discourage ministers from extending the grants.
Officials in the Department for Education and sector leaders have been concerned with convincing businesses to host students for the mandatory 315-hour, or 45-day, placements for T Levels – a flagship new qualification designed to be the technical equivalent to A-levels.
The T Level employer incentives were introduced to help overcome this concern. The pilot was rolled out in the South West and West Midlands in 2019/20 to help businesses prepare for the first T Level students in 2020. It was extended in 2020/21 to the East of England and Yorkshire and Humber.
Researchers noted that the majority of the programme delivery was during a period of social distancing requirements brought about by Covid-19, adding that it is “difficult to fully understand how the programme would work in an environment when these restrictions were not in place”.
However, even accounting for the impact of the pandemic, the targets set for placements and spend “seemed to have overestimated employer need”, the report said.
It added: “In practice, providers felt that most of the employers they engage do not regard cost as a barrier to providing placements and therefore did not have a need for the grant.”
Researchers found examples of T Level providers being “hesitant” to use the £750 grants because of the “risk that some of the funding could be claimed back, and also because of a lack of awareness of how the programme could be used”.
As expected, it was mostly smaller businesses that made use of the incentives. The report said over half of the employers were micro businesses (those with fewer than 10 staff) and a further quarter were small businesses (between 10 and 49 staff).
The funding limit of £750 per placement was “broadly suitable”. Researchers found the only time the placements exceeded £750 was when it was used to purchase expensive IT equipment such as laptops and even in these cases, employers were “generally willing to cover the additional costs, particularly as they mostly kept the equipment afterwards”.
Most employers found the funding “helpful in alleviating resource barriers to providing placements and in ensuring they could provide a meaningful learning experience for learners”, and a few also felt that it helped employer staff “justify providing placements to senior managers”.
But some stated they would have provided placements had they not received the funding.
The impact assessment of the programme did not find conclusive proof that the programme had increased the number of placements provided by providers, the report concluded.
It resonates with research from earlier this year that found just 7 per cent of employers who were not interested in offering T Level industry placements would change their mind with the offer of a £1,000 incentive payment.