Lord Agnew has written to all schools in England calling for them to urgently give access to organisations pushing alternatives to A-levels so that teenagers can make the right choices for them.
The intervention comes after colleges have raised concerns about their ability to promote T-levels to young people in schools where leaders do not want to lose potential A-level students.
Ministers have been pushing for teenagers to choose to study two-year T-levels – which are intended to have an equal status to A-levels – ahead of the first courses being introduced in September.
Lord Agnew, the school systems minister, has said students are “too often” unaware of all the options, adding that it is “more important than ever” that heads allow them to speak to colleges.
Since January 2018, schools in England have been legally required to give colleges and training providers an opportunity to talk to their students about technical qualifications and apprenticeships.
But a number of schools have been flouting their legal duty under the Baker clause as holding onto pupils, and the funding that comes with them, is prioritised amid budget pressures, sector leaders say.
In the letter to schools, Lord Agnew says: “Too many young people are still not given the chance to learn of different environments open to them and find out if technical education is right for them.
“I urge you to take action this term to open your doors to University Technical Colleges, FE colleges, apprenticeship providers and new Institutes of Technology. Now is the crucial moment when so many young people are thinking about their options for September.
“I recognise it can be challenging, particularly when schools have their own post-16 offer. But we all have a responsibility to support young people to make choices based on their skills, interests and aspirations.”
His warning comes after a report by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in December found there was still “significant work to do” to raise awareness of T-levels amongst students.
Carole Willis, chief executive of the NFER, said: “Concerns have been raised about ensuring there is sufficient awareness of the new qualifications and other technical and vocational pathways.
“Students must have sufficient awareness, understanding and confidence to choose T-levels so there needs to be sustained promotion across the full roll out and beyond.
“This includes gaining access to any schools which may be protective over their prospective A-level students.”
On the intervention from the government, Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “This smacks of desperation over the introduction of T-levels.”
He added: “Lord Agnew’s letter comes after the government has made so many claims for T-levels that it would be a major embarrassment if these qualifications do not succeed.
“Schools are aware that they need to give pupils as much information as possible about future courses and careers and we have circulated guidance about the requirements in the Baker Clause.
“However, the wider problem is that the government has failed to invest sufficiently in the provision of high-quality careers information and advice.”
On Friday, the government announced that T-level providers would benefit from a £110m package of support to ensure they are ready to deliver the new courses.
The first three T-levels, in education, digital studies and construction, are due to be taught in 50 providers, of which the majority are colleges, in England from September. Seven more courses will be on offer from 2021 and the remaining 15 will be launched in 2022 and 2023.
Lord Agnew said: “T-levels are launching in September this year, offering high-quality technical alternatives to A-levels. It is more important than ever that headteachers give their pupils the chance to talk with providers so they are able to work out whether a technical education might be right for them.
“We have a responsibility to make sure that young people are able to make informed choices based on their aptitudes and ambitions. This will give them the chance to realise their full potential.”
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges (AoC), said: “At its heart it is simply unfair of schools not to positively promote and explain the full range of options.
“I hope, therefore, that this nudge from Lord Agnew makes a marked difference, but would encourage the government to think about further measures to make sure that it does.”