"We have consulted on those proposals and there is now a consensus that the system needs to change. But one of the proposals I put forward was a bridge too far. My idea that we end the competition between exam boards to offer T levels in core technical qualifications and have just one – wholly new – exam in each subject was just one reform too many at this time.”
This is what Damian Hinds didn’t say last week. In fact, if you switch the words “T levels” for “GCSEs” and “technical” for “academic”, you actually have the words spoken by Michael Gove back in 2013, when he scrapped his contentious plans to introduce EBacc qualifications to replace GCSEs.
This was a radical reform Gove instigated and passionately believed in. But, in the face of virtually universal opposition across the world of education – not least major practical concerns about implementing the single awarding body concept , he backed down.
Hinds was handed the opportunity to do exactly the same last week, when the Department for Education’s permanent secretary, Jonathan Slater, was so concerned about the risks of forcing through the teaching of the first T levels for 2020 – already put back by a year from the original timescale – that he felt compelled to formally express his concerns.
"As things stand today, it will clearly be very challenging to ensure that the first three T levels are ready to be taught from 2020 and beyond to a consistently high standard," he wrote. He added that accounting officers like him had to consider the "'regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility of public spending". "If these were the only considerations, you are aware that I would advise deferring the start date to 2021 in order to mitigate the feasibility and consequential value-for-money risks."
This unusual step required a ministerial direction – a formal instruction from a minister telling their department to proceed with a spending proposal, despite an objection from their permanent secretary. As a result of this direction, the minister, not the permanent secretary, is now accountable for the decision. In more colloquial terminology, it means that should the T levels project fail, the permanent secretary can point to this letter and say: “I told you so.”
The big gamble
It’s important to stress how unusual a step this was. Only 66 ministerial directions have been issued since 1990 – and none of them were at the Department for Education. This highlights just how serious the concerns are at the very top of the DfE about the viability of introducing high-standard T levels in the planned timescale.
So why did Hinds decide to press on? After all, it’s not his policy. The genesis of T levels can be traced back to the commissioning of the Sainsbury review by former skills minister Nick Boles. And it could be argued that it was Hinds’ predecessor, Justine Greening, who picked up on the importance of the programme, and made it front and centre of her time at Sanctuary Buildings, literally and metaphorically throwing the doors of the Department open to the FE providers and employers she needed to make it a success.
So why should Hinds stake his reputation, and arguably his political future, on the hasty introduction of T levels? After all, the last time the government tried a similar initiative with Diplomas, the results were less than successful. Hinds may have hailed his pet project as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity”, but those of us in the sector have seen no shortage of such initiatives come and go.
The reason, I would suggest, is that T levels are really the only show in town as far as the DfE is concerned. While plans for grammar and faith schools may be more appealing to the mainstream media, they amount to little more than rearranging the deckchairs; some red meat to keep the right wing of the party happy while the machinery of government creaks onwards towards Brexit.
No time to waste
Make no mistake: the Cabinet is acutely aware that more needs to be done if UK plc is to find the next generation of skilled workers from a much smaller home-grown talent pool. And, rightly or wrongly, the government is pinning its hopes on T levels to try and address this.
Politically and economically, there is no time to waste. So it’s hard to imagine that Hinds delaying this flagship scheme yet again would have received anything but a frosty reception from Downing Street.
Our education secretary finds himself in the unenviable position of being damned if he does, and damned if he doesn’t. And there’s no shortage of commentators keen to point out the massive challenges that will need to be overcome if T levels are to be introduced on time and successfully. Then there’s the ginormous PR job needed to win over sceptical parents. And that’s not even mentioning the potential legal challenges which could ensue from having a single awarding body for each T level route.
Just months after being given a top Cabinet position, the pinnacle of his political career, Hinds finds his fate inextricably linked to the success of overhauling technical education in England – a task so monumental that no one has ever managed it before. He has made a bold decision – but arguably a decision he had little choice in.