The Department for Education has spent less than 1 per cent of its T Levels budget on publicity efforts, FE Week can reveal amid mounting concerns over a lack of awareness of the flagship qualifications.
A Freedom of Information request shows that £11.7 million has been used for PR and communications campaigns since 2018.
The DfE will have pumped £1.75 billion into the rollout of T Levels by the end of the 2024-25 financial year, with funding available for 100,000 starts by that point.
However, between 2020/21 and 2022/23 just 16,400 students were recruited onto a T Level. It means a marketing cost per T Level student of around £650.
Various reports have raised concerns about continuing low levels of awareness of the new technical courses among young people, parents, employers and even schools.
Most colleges have missed their enrolment targets since T Levels launched in 2020, and several have even scrapped some T Level courses due to low demand.
Ofqual reported in August 2023 that up to 43 per cent of students had no understanding of the qualifications. And over the summer a highly critical Ofsted review slammed promotion efforts after finding that a portion of T Level students who were recruited felt “misled”.
The watchdog’s deputy director for FE and skills, Paul Joyce, told FE Week he was struck by the lack of public awareness of what a T Level is and what the course involves at this point in the rollout.
Sector leaders told FE Week that the government has “significantly underestimated” the difficulty of launching an entirely new and complex qualification in a landscape where well-established qualifications already exist.
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said: “Despite the millions spent on raising awareness of T Levels, it is worrying that providers are concerned the T Level ‘brand’ is not well known and that the qualifications are not understood by parents or school staff.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, added: “In their current guise, T Levels are a high quality but minority product. Attempting to promote them as a mass-market product was therefore always going to be an uphill struggle.”
The marketing figures shared with FE Week showed that for the first three financial years from 2018, over £7 million was spent on specific T Level advertising by DfE.
But from January 2022, the department ditched the individual marketing campaigns in favour of a more joined-up approach, spending approximately £4.5 million on the promotion of all technical education options.
These include the Get the Jump campaign, which sought to raise awareness of all education and training pathways and the Join the Skills Revolution campaign, which aims for more employer involvement in programmes such as apprenticeships, Multiply numeracy courses and T Levels.
The campaigns are handled by agencies contracted by DfE. Last October, M&C Saatchi was handed an up to £9.5 million contract to handle the government’s Skills for Life campaign, receiving over £1.5 million per year for four years from 2022/23.
The DfE also works with the Gatsby Foundation, which was set up by Lord David Sainsbury who also led the government’s technical education review in 2016, which paved the way for T Levels. His foundation launched a campaign in 2022 led by The Apprentice star Tim Campbell to target parents, carers and guardians of 11 to 16-year-olds.
ABS announcement ‘undercuts’ T Levels investment
Experts told FE Week that the government could have spent more funding on promoting T Levels instead of choosing to replace the qualification with the Advanced British Standard (ABS), as proposed by prime minister Rishi Sunak in October.
Ben Verinder, marketing expert and managing director of Chalkstream, told FE Week: “Launching a new national flagship qualification like T Levels requires considerable investment in order to raise awareness among the target market because – as we saw with Diplomas – they need a critical mass to succeed.
“So, spending millions to introduce T Levels to young people and their families is, on the face of it, a wise and necessary investment. What is not so wise is undercutting that investment by announcing the future demise of the qualification to national media.”
Verinder added: “We carry qualifications with us throughout our lives. If we are told that at some point they will be devalued, we won’t invest in them, no matter how big the marketing budget.”
Barton said the move by Number 10 to announce the ABS just three years after T Levels launched was “completely incoherent”.
“It will further confuse students and parents and teachers, making it more difficult to recruit students to these courses, and undermining the marketing work that has taken place,” he added.
A DfE spokesperson said: “We have invested over £11 million in national communications and marketing campaigns promoting T Levels, and these will be continued into at least 2025.
“This academic year we also provided all T Level providers with up to £10,000 to invest in extra careers guidance. Our network of over 400 T Level ambassadors are also helping to boost awareness among employers, parents and students.
“These efforts have resulted in a 36 percentage points increase in T Level awareness among students in years 9 to 11 in the last two years, with nearly 70 per cent of year 11 pupils also now aware.”