The government’s new student exchange programme missed its schools target by more than 40% in its inaugural year as Covid impacted take-up, an evaluation has shown.

Around 2,800 schoolchildren went on school trips under the £110 million Turing scheme in 2021, according to a government report published today. The programme replaced the EU’s Erasmus initiative in 2021.

Missed Turing Scheme targets

Five thousand schoolchildren were expected to take part, with ministers originally wanting to help 35,000 people to study overseas through the post-Brexit scheme, named after scientist Alan Turing.

The figure was expected to include 5,000 schoolchildren.

But the report, penned by IFF Research, said only 20,822 took part in 2021. Just under 14 per cent (2,828) came from UK secondaries.

In all, 373 education providers were awarded funding. Universities made up 37 per cent (139) of them, while the number for schools stood at 31 per cent (115). But of those that actually ended up participating, schools made up just 24 per cent.

In the final year of Erasmus, 55,681 students were able to learn abroad. School pupils accounted for 4.6 per cent of them (2,550).

Covid’s impact

More than nine in 10 providers believed the pandemic had an impact on the delivery of the Turing scheme. Universities were said to have felt the effects the most (48 per cent of those surveyed).

This was higher than schools, of which “only 17 per cent reported having delivery impacted to a large extent”.

“All three provider types [universities, colleges and schools] stated the main impact of Covid-19 was that entry restrictions in foreign countries prevented participants from attending their placement.”

Covid also “created general uncertainty or concerns about safety and travel”. This meant “participants were less likely to have signed up for the Turing Scheme, making it harder for providers to achieve their planned placements”.

Twenty-one per cent of schools listed this as a problem.

Challenges with Turing Scheme applications

But surveys and interviews conducted by IFF Research highlighted “challenges in the application process, particularly among [higher education] providers”.

Almost 80 per cent of the 67 universities quizzed found the “year one application process difficult”, while “19 per cent found it easy”.

Meanwhile, just 29 per cent of the 62 schools surveyed found the application process difficult.

But the researchers added that “the proportions stating they found it easy were still in the minority, suggesting there is scope to improve the process”.

Despite this, 86 per cent of providers “who participated in year one of the Turing Scheme applied to year two, where some changes had been made to improve the process”.

“This included streamlining the application questions and simplifying the funding request categories,” the report explained.

Funding a problem for poorer pupils

Generating interest among disadvantaged students to take part “was not a main challenge”, the report found.

However “providers indicated that barriers related to the initial lack of guarantee for funding, the amount of funding and the timing that it was delivered. These issues were felt to disproportionately impact participation among disadvantaged groups.”

Of the 66 schoolchildren surveyed by IFF Research, the majority (48) felt they had enough funding “to cover their living costs” and leisure activities (42) during their placements.

But the researchers added that 58 still spent “additional money, which most commonly came from their family”.

“Over two-thirds (47) reported that they were unlikely to go on the placement without funding, which suggests that the funding has supported this group to engage in mobilities.”

Report recommendations

The report government consider offering “greater funding amounts for the most disadvantaged, who may not have any additional funds to contribute”.

It also suggested bringing the application and confirmation of outcome windows forward to allow providers to be confident in their offers for poorer students at an earlier date.

This was because the original timings “meant some prospective participants were left unsure as to whether any funding would be available and pulled out of the scheme as a result”.

“Providers should be encouraged to offer some funds to their learners upfront (before placements have started), to ensure disadvantaged students have access to upfront funds for travel and to secure accommodation,” the report added.

The the scheme now into its third year, government figures show 40,000 students – 60 per cent of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds – from UK universities, colleges and schools are set to benefit in 2023-24.

Skills minister Robert Halfon labelled the programme “a real game-changer”.

“It showcases our positive ambition post-Brexit, fostering a global outlook for more students who deserve every chance to thrive. 

“Young people benefit from inspirational placements around the world, not just Europe, building the confidence and skills they need for their future, whilst bolstering the government’s drive for a Global Britain.”