Apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan's first experience of the workplace has clearly stuck with her. Last year, she told me at a Public First panel discussion: “I still remember that factory [I did work experience in] as if it was yesterday. I remember the smell. I remember the people, the environment."
I, too, can remember the smell of the first workplace I walked into as if it was yesterday, despite the fact that more than 20 years have passed.
My first workplace, a regional newspaper office in the Westfalia region of Germany where I arrived for a fortnight's work experience aged 16, mostly smelled of old paper and the chemicals required to develop photographs. It was a newsroom full of seasoned hacks, and I learned a huge amount from watching them and joining them on press calls – from their reaction to hearing fire engines outside to the handling of challenging phone calls.
Crucially, they were also able to observe me – watch me take on increasingly advanced tasks, write my first stories, learn how to develop photographs taken while out on a job. When the placement finished, I began to work for the paper after school and at weekends, writing hundreds of articles in the three years before I left to go to university.
Gillian Keegan: T-level placements challenge can be overcome
A “virtual placement”, however well done, would never have been as beneficial. I am therefore not surprised at all that Gillian Keegan, whose first workplace experience was clearly also a positive one, has been adamant for months that (especially when it comes to the new T-level qualifications) “real” face-to-face placements are crucial.
T levels: Are virtual work placements any good?
"You can't replicate that," she said at the panel discussion. "[The T-level placement] is 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.”
Particularly in some industries, it's difficult to imagine how you could effectively replicate nine weeks of hands-on experience online and achieve something of similar usefulness.
But maybe, in 2021, we should look at things a little differently. As T levels were first launched, before anyone had heard of the coronavirus, the challenge of finding a huge number of quality placements, particularly in areas of England with few large employers, was a concern for many in FE.
That was before the pandemic: before the economy took a huge hit, many workplaces shut for months and social distancing at work became a consideration likely to stay with us for some time.
This week’s Institute of Directors' survey, reported exclusively by Tes, sheds more light on where we are now. Of the almost 600 member businesses that responded, just one in 10 said they would be offering placements to T-level students in 2021, with six in 10 businesses saying they were "not likely" to do so this year. Three in 10 said they did not know whether they would or not.
Despite the government’s marketing campaign on T levels, it perhaps is no surprise that many businesses are not yet aware of these new courses and the need for their hand in their success.
But this also comes a few months after the Skills for Jobs White Paper set out the crucial role that employers are to play in the future of FE. That means it is even more important to listen to them, and not make assumptions. What they seem to be saying in this IoD survey is that, by and large, they are not ready – not yet anyway.
We cannot simply plough on regardless. No one is saying placements aren’t possible right now. Parts of the economy are opening up again, and in many scenarios, such as for careers education, virtual placements could well work – and are certainly better than nothing. John Yarham, deputy chief executive of the Careers and Enterprise Company, highlights this today: “I wouldn't want to comment on the T-level situation, but I think, in terms of developing young people's awareness of careers and exposure to them, and an understanding of employers and what they're looking for, virtual placements are the only way they can do that at the moment."
Any sort of placement requires investment from employers – significant time, but also space and commitment. For many, it's too tall an order right now. But if employers are to be more engaged with FE, and play that necessary role in providing placements, it will require creativity and significant support. And we certainly need to start listening to what it is employers need to make that work.