'Does the skills minister see the similarity between T levels and Labour’s diplomas?'

The parallels are obvious – so the government needs to seek the help of those behind the diplomas, says Lord Jim Knight

Jim Knight

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Just before the summer break the new skills minister, Anne Milton, announced a delay of a year before introducing the first new T levels. She also promised further announcements this autumn on the latest attempt at introducing aspirational technical qualifications that sit in the uncomfortable territory between academic and vocational qualifications. 

I can’t help wondering whether anyone has talked to her about the canny resemblance this has with the 14-19 diplomas.

These “specialist diplomas” were announced in 2005 in a White Paper produced by the Labour government. They were launched three years later and by 2009-10 over 30,000 young people were enrolled in a diploma course. They were then effectively closed down by the coalition government. 

The 14-19 diplomas sought to bridge the gap between academic and vocational learning, attempting to mix specialist skills with some generic learning and functional skills, plus work experience. They covered 14 sectors, such as construction, hair and beauty and creative and media. They cost over £300 million to introduce.

The T levels were announced in a White Paper in 2016. They will be launched four years later in 2020.  They will have a common core as well as “a specialisation towards a skilled occupation or set of occupations”. They cover 15 sectors such as construction, hair and beauty and creative and design. The last Budget announced an additional investment of £500 million in their development by 2022.

I am by no means the first to point out the similarities. One of Ms Milton’s predecessors, Nick Boles, set out the difference with the diplomas when he launched the Skills Plan last year. He said the problem was “they lacked real commitment, with governments changing plans before they could have real impact”.

'I'm waiting for a phone call about T levels'

Given that the change of plans was due to a change of government, I am hoping we can get cross-party consensus on the latest efforts. I am not going to do anything but try to support the T levels as they are developed. But I really hope the government is engaging with those responsible for the diplomas last time. 

As the minister responsible for them 10 years ago, I am waiting for the phone to ring.

Today I shall join a conversation with the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Skills and Employment, the Federation of Awarding Bodies and other sector partners to try to work out what lessons the government can learn from these previous attempts at education reform.

I think it’s vitally important that the education sector, the government and Parliament develop better institutional memory to ensure that we aren’t raising the same issues, and holding the same debates, time and again. The ministers may change but, learning from the past, we have a much greater chance of not just revisiting issues, but solving them.

The key question that we will need to answer is how to remain firmly midway between the purely academic and purely vocational. Past attempts have added more and more academic content to gain respectability amongst the snobbery of the educational establishment. I was never allowed to call them “vocational” diplomas because the “v-word” was associated with low aspiration and blue overalls.

I hope that, alongside the repositioning and promotion of apprenticeships, these new “third-way” qualifications can flourish. The test will be whether ambitious parents can find themselves showing off to their friends that their child is now taking T levels and hopes to go on to a higher-level apprenticeship – they want to get their degree while earning, rather than the old way of a campus and huge debts.

Lord Jim Knight is chief education adviser​ to Tes Global, the parent company of Tes

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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