'Amid A-level hysteria, spare a thought for T levels'

The brouhaha of A-level results day reveals the disparity between academic and technical education, says Luke Heselwood

Luke Heselwood

Why we should celebrate A levels and vocational results on the same day

Few days highlight the disparity between academic and technical qualifications quite like A-level results day. Every year, the nation obsesses over how many students have achieved an A* and who won in the battle of the sexes. Scrutiny of examiners, teachers and the quality of courses soon follow. 

Technical education gets no such attention. 

Results day hysteria highlights our two-tier education system. As the former education secretary Damian Hinds said, there is an educational snobbery facing technical routes, as pupils are often made to believe that vocational studies are second class. Getting A levels and attending a top university in an academic subject is still considered the main route to a good job.

T levels, the technical answer to A levels, are to be introduced from September 2020. They are the latest attempt to achieve what previous manifestations of technical education could not: parity of esteem between academic and non-academic qualifications. It will be difficult. 

The hysteria of A-level results day

Attracting significant numbers of students to follow an alternative path will mean rolling back years of favouritism for the academic route. In 2017-18, 299,420 students aged 16 to 18 completed A levels. In stark comparison, 51,197 completed either a “tech level” or “technical certificate”. 

Rather than pitting T levels as a direct competitor to its academic counterpart, it’s important to demonstrate the unique benefits of this alternative route. The workplace experience gained through industry placements, for example, could make a big difference to future employment prospects.

The obsession with A-level results day is also made possible by the simple fact that people understand the qualifications – most of the journalists covering the day will have taken them, or an earlier incarnation of them. They know it is the key passport to university.

Technical education is more confusing. Over the past 40 years, there has been consistent change across the sector, with 28 pieces of legislation and multiple qualifications that have come and gone. 

With the introduction of T levels imminent, there are concerns that these qualifications duplicate elements of existing courses, such as apprenticeships – leading to students having to choose between similar programmes of technical education. 

Emphasis on academic qualifications, which the brouhaha of A-level results day reinforces, can also leave parents and students unaware of qualifications that may suit them better. A survey of 1,000 UK parents of 11- to 18-year-olds found that only 20 per cent were aware of degree apprenticeships as an alternative route to higher education

T levels: reversing years of favouritism

Similarly, while T levels are highly anticipated by policy wonks and commentators, they’re not cutting through outside that bubble. Two surveys conducted in 2018 found that 60 per cent of 2,000 employers and 62 per cent of parents were unaware of the new qualification. 

Even teachers appear to be at best lukewarm about alternative routes. A recent report found that two-thirds of secondary schools have failed to introduce the Baker Clause, which requires schools to publish their plans to grant training providers access to discuss technical education with pupils. The Department for Education subsequently admitted taking no action to reprimand schools for non-compliance after former skills minister Anne Milton argued that the government would directly intervene to enforce the clause. 

Post-18, the story stays the same. Since 2010, further education has seen an 8 per cent reduction in funding per student, while higher education spending has increased. Responding to the Augar Review’s call for more funding for FE, Theresa May said that the sector has been “overlooked, undervalued and underfunded”. And the new PM has said it is “vital” to properly fund FE to offer an alternative to academic qualifications. Cue a lot of agreement among experts and, as yet, little action.

And here we are again, reinforcing the fact that, when it actually comes to it, our national obsession is all about the academic. 

Parity of esteem will require parity of attention. The introduction of T levels presents an opportunity. Let’s hope they’re accompanied by an equivalent headline-grabbing day in summer 2021, to promote technical education. 

 Dr Luke Heselwood is senior researcher at the Reform thinktank. He tweets as @LukeHeselwood 

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