T Levels – making the ‘work placement’ work
The ‘T’ level reform to vocational education planned to be rolled out from 2020 is ambitious and probably the most significant reform to post-16 education since the introduction of ‘A’ levels. The first T Level courses in education and childcare, construction and digital will be taught in over 50 further education and post-16 providers from September 2020. A further 22 courses will be rolled-out from 2021 onwards covering sectors such as finance & accounting, engineering and manufacturing, and creative and design. ‘T’ levels are seen by the government as being critical to the economy, as such, part of their purpose is to ensure parity of esteem between vocational and academic pathways but also to simplify the post-16 qualification landscape.
Since the Department for Education consultation in November 2018, one of the most significant challenges cited by colleges is the 45-60 days (covering a minimum of 315 hours) work placement requirement which is crucial to the ‘T’ level reform. The terminology in government documentation refers to a ‘high quality work placement’ and students ‘successfully completing a work placement’. These terms have not been clearly defined, and a key issue for colleges is to have a set of clear guidelines in the event of an ‘unsuccessful’ placement.
Employers and colleges also need clear criteria as to what is required so the key elements of ‘T’ level standards for each course are met through the work placement and not left to chance, especially as it is mandatory to successfully complete a work placement to achieve a T level.
Work placements are a good aspiration to help young people acquire the skills they need to get a job, however, their implementation may prove problematic for colleges. This is especially a concern in rural and coastal areas where availability of local work placements for a range of ‘T’ levels may prove limited. Another point to consider is that different parts of the country may have a concentration of some vocational sectors and not others, therefore there is a real possibility that this factor alone will in fact limit the range of ‘T’ levels that colleges can offer in their local communities, and so limit the opportunities for young people.
Another concern is that an employer may be unable to accommodate the number of ‘T’ level students needing a placement at one time. This is particularly challenging for micro, small or even medium sized businesses. Also, if transport links are not adequate this will only add to the challenges for colleges and employers. So, if students are on work placements at different times, timetabling and delivery of the curriculum, which includes maths and English resits, then becomes problematic at an organisational level. It is very likely that most colleges will have to adopt a staggered approach to course design, with lessons being repeated to ensure that all students can participate.
Another area for potential concern is how work placements take into account equality issues and how these will be managed. It is vital that colleges are able to continue their work in helping those with protected characteristics, greater needs or specific circumstances to be able to access and successfully complete a work placement as part of their ‘T’ Level.
Whilst plans are still on track to implement the ‘T’ level qualifications in 2020, there are some key issues that need to be carefully planned, and budgeted, so that their implementation is successful and not just another ingredient in the alphabet soup of FE policy reform.