T Levels: what’s the win for employers?

Last week, the DfE announced that it was setting up a £12 million fund to encourage employers to offer work experience for T levels. Good news, right? Well, partly.

If T Levels are ever going to be a mainstream success as a vocational qualification, they are going to need a lot more employer engagement. I mean a lot.

Let’s crunch some numbers. In each cohort of just under 1.5 million 16-year olds, the choices are A levels, BTECs or apprenticeships (accounting for about half the cohort between them), jobs, unemployment or ‘other’. For T levels to grow to even a quarter of those in education or training and, let’s say, a tenth of the rest would mean nearly 275,000 T level work experience opportunities per year. Are there really that placements many out there to be had? 

Each T Level requires 45 days of work experience. For 275,000 T levels, that equates to just under 100 million hours. Let’s suppose each placement takes just one hour of administrative work to arrange and each experience hour that they provide takes up just 10 minutes of oversight by a paid employee. I suspect both those estimates are generously on the low side, but even that is nearly 17 million hours of employer time.

At a median hourly rate of £18.50 for those employees doing the administration or oversight (again, I’m being generous), that’s well over £300 million of direct cost to the employers. That’s before you account for any of the other costs in providing work experience (the space, utilities, equipment, insurance, etc).

A fund of £12Mn looks pretty paltry by comparison.

But let us not be churlish. It’s better than nothing and presumably the DfE hopes the £12Mn will help to fund tens of thousands T levels next year, not yet the hundreds of thousands which it may hope may be realised in the future.

Besides, it’s not as if employers engage in T levels to add to their bottom line anyway. This is an investment in the future of their workforce, creating a skills pipeline and contributing to wider society, surely?

So let’s think like a business. How else could they invest and achieve a similar outcome? Well, instead of the new-fangled T levels that as yet have no track record, one alternative for an employer would be to offer apprenticeships to young people instead.

Would it be cheaper and more cost effective for the employer?

Cheaper? Yes. Larger employers can offset the cost of apprenticeships against their levy. Smaller employers can claim (most of) the cost back.

More cost effective? Probably. Apprentices are employees whereas T level students aren’t. That gives employers have more control over what they can expect from apprentices’ productivity. And when they finish their apprenticeship, the employer can chose to (continue to) employ them, rather than, with T level students, hoping that, when they finish, they apply for a job with them rather than perhaps with their competitor, going to uni or doing something else.

If an employer is looking to invest in their future skills pipeline, they may well decide apprenticeships are a more attractive option than engaging in T levels and even the prospect of a share of a £12 million fund doesn’t come close to tipping that calculation.

That is perhaps why when the DfE tried setting up a similar fund in 2019, they managed to allocate only £500k out of a total available of £7Mn, funding about 2.5% of the intended number of T level placements.

The £1,000 per placement incentive simply didn’t sweeten the deal sufficiently. Even DfE’s own research told them as much: just 7% of employers said it would make a difference. (My back-of-an-envelope calculation above of £300 million costs for 275,000 placements – which works out at an optimistic £1,090 each – perhaps explains why.)

If at first you don’t succeed… right?

Or there is another way of looking at it: the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

When you have a bold and ambitious policy, you don’t get it to fly by giving it half a feather instead of a full set of wings

This may all sound like nay-saying about T levels as if I don’t approve of the concept. Nothing could be further from the truth. I would love to see them succeed. The problem is that when you have a bold and ambitious policy, you don’t get it to fly by giving it half a feather instead of a full set of wings.

Rather than recognising that a change this big needs real investment of money and effort – especially to overcome the real challenges of delivering T levels at scale at a regional level – the Government’s approach appears to be to defund other options, even when its own targets for T level expansion won’t replace what’s being lost.

Realistically, T levels won’t ever be the vocational silver bullet qualification that the Government longs for. The problems of employer engagement and regional disparities in provision can be tackled, but never fully overcome, and the fact will remain that for some young people, commitment to a single T level at 16 will simply be less suitable than a mix of BTECs or other options (which usually require a less academic approach to learning and can help a young people keep their options open for longer). 

I do hope, however, that T levels find a place in the choice of provision and do not suffer the fate of so many of the other well-intentioned efforts to create new vocational qualifications. The only vocational qualification that can really be said to have stood the test of time – six decades and counting – are BTECs, which, ironically, the Government wants to scale back. 

A shorter version of this blog was first published as a thread on Twitter on 17th February 2023.

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