'Work placements – the crucial piece of the T-levels puzzle'

The work placement element of the new T levels will be at the heart of preparing learners for the world of work, writes Ian Pretty

Ian Pretty

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Is there any other issue that poses a bigger risk to T levels than work placements? It seems to be a source of endless consternation for colleges, government and employers.

The work placement is a hugely important piece of the T-levels puzzle. But there are endless questions: how will employers be persuaded to take on so many learners, what about rural learners where there are no work experience opportunities and how can providers source enough of these substantial work placements to satisfy anticipated demand? All valid questions – and all real challenges – but they will need a bit of creativity to solve.

The work placement element of T levels will be a crucial to truly prepare learners for the world of work. The Department for Education has been clear that no work experience means no certification.

T levels and work experience

The focus of T levels needs to be about employability and equipping learners with the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed to secure long-term and sustainable employment. These skills are best reinforced by engagements with industry through practical work experience which is relevant to their programme.

While there has been some debate about whether the compulsory work placement is realistic, we think it is, but the devil is in the detail. The work experience element should be essential to achieve a T level, we do not agree with a blanket requirement of 20 per cent, equivalent to 45 to 60 days or 315 hours over the duration of the course. The T-level work placements will be substantially longer than work experience typically offered by employers and so there is an innate challenge in securing the volumes needed. This will be a challenge for big and small employer alike.

Concern about placing work experience learners will vary across different sectors, but there will be challenges across many of them. Construction, Energy and Utilities and Financial Services are all highly regulated, and this creates additional complexity in taking on work experience learners for substantial periods of time. 


So, it will be essential that there is some degree of flexibility in the duration of the work experience. This will depend on the route, the pathway and the availability of employers offering work experience opportunities within a given locality.

Above all else, there is a need to think creatively about how work experience could be delivered. Colleges are concerned about sourcing the required number of work placements and the amount of engagement this would take with a variety of employers of all shapes and sizes. There is a risk that employers will be inundated with requests and that providers will face increasing competition to secure work placements. In addition to the capacity building fund provided to colleges, there may be a need to think about implementing a programme, either on a regional or national basis, to coordinate placements and provide a joined-up interface between providers and employers to create efficiencies and identify opportunities.

Much has been made of the practical difficulty of securing work placement opportunities for learners who might wish to undertake a T-level in a subject where there are no relevant employers nearby. In highly populated metropolitan areas, finding an employer across a given route may be easier than for a learner in a rural area. Regardless of geography, there is a need to be able to offer work experience opportunities within a relevant T-level route, but this may require flexible and creative approaches to be adopted. An approach cannot be taken that mandatory work experience is untenable because there might be some challenges in sourcing limited places for hypothetical learners. This policy can’t be made on a basis of catering to the exception as opposed to the rule.

On-site experience

One option to answer this challenge could be to reinforce workplace skills out of the physical work environment. This could be achieved through “off-site” employer designed projects that require learners to respond to real-world business issues or scenarios which can be undertaken remotely. On-site experience is crucial to embed core employability skills, but to create additional flexibility a mixture of on and off-site work experience could be valuable. The use of realistic working environments could also be employed to provide this work experience. This should be permissible where there is no alternative.

In the digital and technology sectors, work placements could conceivably be delivered through remote employer set projects which enhance relevant skills and allow opportunities for employer guidance and feedback. In the university sector, there are lots of good examples of this model which equip learners with specific occupational skills outside of a traditional workplace setting through practical project working.

Work experience could also be offered by employers as part of a paid internship. This would compel employers to devise a proper role which would maximise opportunities for learners to succeed. Providing a genuine role also gives employers more opportunities to talent spot. Barclays do this for undergrads and 75 per cent of them get job offers at the end of their internship.

By allowing work placements to remain as flexible as possible – and thinking creatively about how they can be delivered – the opportunities to maximise impact will be increased markedly.

Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group. He tweets at @ianpretty1

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Ian Pretty

Ian Pretty

Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group of colleges

Find me on Twitter @IanPretty1

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