T levels: Allow virtual work placement, say FE leaders

FE leaders say that they are struggling to secure digital placements for students owing to restrictions around virtual placements
15th October 2020, 4:57pm


T levels: Allow virtual work placement, say FE leaders

Coronavirus: The Challenge Of Finding Work Experience For T Levels

T-level providers have raised concerns over the viability of securing students work placements this year. 

College leaders have told Tes they need flexibilities from the Department for Education to allow placements to take place virtually. Currently, virtual placements do not count towards the required 350 hours undertaken in a T level. 

One vice principal, who asked to remain anonymous, told Tes that many of the digital businesses he was speaking to to secure placements simply could not take students because their offices were closed. 

He said: "Many digital-specific and other workplaces have staff working from home. We are precluded under the current rules from our students taking part in placements where they work from home, even if they are working in a team of digital professionals who are working remotely. That is problematic. 

"Many of the digital businesses we work with were already working flexibly prior to Covid, so it was already slightly challenging in respect to that. And actually, if we're preparing our students for the industry in which they should enter, helping them to develop those skills of remote working is essential."

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He added that the college was struggling with childcare and education placements. He said that with childcare and education placements, because many students had part-time jobs in healthcare settings, employers were worried about the risk of transmission of Covid-19 and so were not taking on students.

Speaking at a Public First event last week, apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan admitted that finding T-level work placements for students was a challenge. At the time, she said that some employers had spoken about virtual placements - but that she believed that work placements could not be replicated online.

She said: "I still remember that factory as if it was yesterday. I remember the smell. I remember the people, the environment. You can't replicate that. It's a nine-week work placement, it's an extremely valuable part of the course, and I am certainly not giving up on that part of the T-level experience for young people."

'Exceptional responses in exceptional times'

Cath Sezen, policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said that the AoC was calling on the government to rethink this stance.

She said: "At the moment, it's really, really challenging because employers are saying 'we can't take the person'. What we would like to explore, and what colleges would like to explore, is that art of the possible. Why not use this as an opportunity to develop something which is more 21st century? It is not going to entirely take the place of a placement, but we have to think of exceptional responses in exceptional times.

"We need a complete rethink. If you say to a college, you can do 150 hours of placement instead of 350, it doesn't make a difference. If you haven't got the place, you haven't got the place."

She added that businesses were less able to take on students for placements while going through employment practices such as furlough, redundancy or restructuring. 

Another leader at a T-level provider in England echoed this and told Tes that Covid-19 has affected and delayed placements because "employers are focused on the immediate business and critical issues they need to address and to support a remote workforce."

They said that the college aimed to confirm "industry experience opportunities" by the end of term. 

Across other T-level providers, the picture was more varied. One college had secured one-week placements for all construction students with plans to secure the full placements for next academic year. Another had found placements for all 45 learners but was experiencing some delays in education and childcare settings owing to CBS checks. 

Another college had "linked" all 42 students with employers who were offering virtual opportunities for students while another had delayed all placements until next spring. 

Joe Fitzsimons, head of education and skills policy at the Institute of Directors, said that employers would welcome further flexibility around placements.

He said: "Company directors are keen to play their part in helping young people gain industry experience. The current situation presents a range of challenges in terms of face-to-face engagement, so further flexibility around placements would be a welcome move.

"While this flexibility would significantly increase the scope for many employers to provide work placements, additional support and guidance should be provided so that businesses can give the young people the constructive experience they need."

Concerns with the capacity and delivery fund 

Ms Sezen also told Tes that the problem was on a much wider scale than placements for T levels. 

She highlighted the Capacity and Delivery Fund and said that she's got "reams" of emails from colleges who are unable to meet their targets.  

The fund was introduced by the Department for Education in April 2018 to support colleges to provide work placements for students.

Colleges are set targets that they have to deliver on to receive funding. If a college puts forward, for example, 10 students who would be eligible to go on work placements, they must deliver 30 per cent of those placements. Colleges currently receive £250 per eligible student from the fund. 

Owing to Covid-19, the target has been reduced to 25 per cent and the length of time the placements can occur across has been extended from one year to two years. However, even with these changes, Ms Sezen told Tes that it was proving too tough for colleges.

She said: "The issue of work placements is one of my top concerns in terms of curriculum at the moment. And actually, the T level is probably the least of our concerns, the far bigger issue is placements overall. The CDF is really welcome but colleges are saying that for CDF and just general study programme work experience, they are really struggling to get young people out into placements. 

"I've got reams of correspondence from colleges now and from employers, saying 'we'd really love to help, but…' Employers who have taken placements previously say it's for a variety of reasons: public health, students being in a bubble, employers themselves having to make different decisions about what to prioritise.

"We don't know where we are going to be in six months' time and, particularly with digital placements and placements that are more office based, why don't we start thinking now about what the work environment is going to look like in 2023?" 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: "We recognise the challenges some T-level providers are facing as a result of the pandemic, particularly on providers' ability to secure industry placements in the workplace. 

"We are working very closely with them now to identify specific issues, and will continue to monitor the situation throughout the autumn term and whether further support is needed".

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