Nadhim Zahawi claims to have seen evidence that shows enough employers will offer 45-day work placements to tens of thousands of students each year when T Levels are fully rolled out.
The education secretary’s claim, made in an exclusive interview with FE Week, comes despite college leaders who are delivering the first T Levels warning they can’t even find enough placements now for their small number of learners.
“My team has shown me early evidence that they’ve done on this [and] there’s plenty of scope for those placements for real delivery at scale,” Zahawi said.
“I’m confident we’ll have the placements. The evidence is there. I want to now make sure we are operationally ready.”
The Department for Education refused to share the alleged evidence with the sector when pressed, saying all “internal advice” to ministers is not made public. FE Week has submitted a freedom of information request for the evidence to push for its release.
Just hours after Zahawi’s claim, FE Week spoke to principals delivering the first and second wave of T Levels, who said they currently have students on the flagship programme who cannot find industry placements.
The college leaders, who did not want to be named, said the issue was particularly acute for the digital pathway if the college is in a rural area.
And speaking on this week’s FE Week Podcast, outgoing chief executive of T Level provider Activate Learning, Sally Dicketts, said the government faces a real “problem” in this space. “For most of England, employers are small and medium size. They can barely provide you with three weeks of work experience, let alone 45 days of it,” Dicketts, who is also the Association of Colleges president, added.
Ministers and sector leaders have become increasingly worried about convincing enough businesses to host students for the 315-hour, or 45-day, placements, a concern exacerbated by Covid-19.
The DfE has watered down the policy for 2020 and 2021 starters by allowing a chunk of their placement to be conducted remotely – but this flexibility is only temporary.
Other short-term flexibilities include £1,000 cash incentives for employers running the placements.
Some colleges, including Scarborough Sixth Form College, attended by former education secretary Gavin Williamson, have pulled out of delivering some T Level pathways after finding it too difficult to secure sufficient work placements to meet demand.
But Zahawi, the former vaccines minister, is not fazed. He told FE Week he has made it his top target to make T Levels a success. “As I did with vaccines, I’m going to deliver on this. I will make T Levels as famous as A-levels by the next election.
“What that means is I hope everyone will know someone, family member or friend, who will have heard or have done a T Level. So it’s a huge scale-up. We are brilliant at doing a lot of evidence and thinking and reviews. We’ve had the Wolf review, we’ve had the Sainsbury review, it’s about delivery now.
“I am not the world’s greatest think-tanker. But I think I’m pretty good at delivery. And I will deliver.”
FE Week also asked Zahawi whether he had further plans to bring FE and HE closer together, following the Augar review and appointment of two joint ministers – Michelle Donelan and Alex Burghart – to cover both sectors.
The education secretary would only say: “Loads, and you have to wait until I talk about that at a later stage.”