The world of technical education is enmeshed in a confused tangle of qualifications, many of which are of little value.
There is an urgent need for reform. Hence, the argument goes, it is time for T levels, a new framework of fifteen pathways designed to tidy up the mess and bring parity of esteem with A levels.
Two things strike me as odd about this rationale for what has been hailed as a ‘once-in-a-lifetime’ revolution in technical education.
Firstly, are things really so confused? Wouldn’t we expect there to be a lot of technical qualifications? After all, there are a lot of jobs, and for each job, different levels and areas of technical expertise. Given the heterogeneous nature of the world of work, diversity and multiplicity within the qualifications matrix could simply reflect the fact that things are working as they should.
Yet the Sainsbury Review claims that having 21,000 registered qualifications offered by 158 awarding organizations is seriously confusing for employers and students.
'We can navigate complexity'
I’m unconvinced. Most shoppers entering their local superstore aren’t fazed by the prospect of thousands of products, from hundreds of retailers, with dozens of varieties of any one item. We like choice, we usually know what we like and when it does seem complicated, we find ways to navigate the complexity – like using comparison websites.
The same is true of the qualifications world. In Ofqual’s 2017 employer qualifications perceptions survey, two-thirds of respondents said they have a very good or quite good understanding and only 6 per cent said they had no understanding at all. It hardly sounds as though confusion is rife.
Admittedly, few of those interviewed had more than a vague understanding of qualification content, but that is unsurprising and the same would be true of qualifications quite generally – A levels included. Employers possess a good general sense of what qualifications would normally be expected on the CV of a job applicant in their field and how likely they are to perform well given their grades.
This brings us to the other eyebrow-raising feature of the T level proposals, which is the very fact that we are talking about qualification reform once again. The idea of taking the suite of technical qualifications and organizing them into a small number of pathways is not a new one and the failure of preceding attempts is ominous.
Could T levels become the new diplomas?
In 2013, only five years after their high-profile launch, the 14-19 diplomas bumped to the end of the runway having failed to get airborne. Hundreds of millions of pounds were spent and tiny numbers of students gained the new qualifications.
This was only the latest in a string of failed attempts at centralized, government-led, top-down reform of the vocational and technical sector. What is extraordinary, though, is that reform is on the cards again, despite the fact that the reasons for such failure were articulated precisely and cogently by none other than Professor Alison Wolf, the government-appointed expert, in her 2011 review of vocational education.
Professor Wolf argued that many of our vocational programmes are not as good as they should be, not despite but because of ‘central government’s constant redesign, re-regulation and re-organisation of 14-19 education’. She pointed out that employers concentrate on a small number of familiar qualifications and have given up trying to keep up with constant reform and change.
In other words, creating a new set of technical qualifications is unlikely to help deal with perceived confusion and may just as well create more.
Now the Wolf Report was written in the context of extremely disappointing uptake of the 14-19 diplomas, and the designers of the T level framework are keen to explain that they have learned from past mistakes. But there is a central dilemma facing anyone intent on reform: what is to be done with existing qualifications?
Rush for simplicity could lead to generic qualifications
Keep well-established qualifications, and students, parents and employers will exercise a justifiable preference for routes which, despite their flaws, are tried-and-tested, rather than ambitious but unproven innovative qualifications. Alternatively, and there are hints in the T level proposals that this might be the direction of travel, take the radical step of sweeping aside existing qualifications, thus forcing sector buy-in to the reforms, but at the risk that the vastly simplified framework will end up being too generic and consequently not fit for purpose.
It is hard not to suspect that some version of the radical route may be tried. But this really would be to ignore what we should by now have learned about the limits of qualification reform. T levels may not have the complexity that beset the diploma programmes but there are other concerning elements of the reforms, not least, the suggestion that just 15 pathways will provide validly assessable pathways across the full span of the technical sector, the rapid pace of roll-out (initial roll-out in two years’ time; full roll-out in four) and the lack of piloting of the qualifications themselves.
In her report of 2011, Professor Wolf made a powerful case in favour of multiplicity and against centrally-determined qualification reform, arguing that the complexity of our occupational structure means that attempts to impose a neat, uniform and ‘logical’ qualification structure always fail.
I concur. It really isn’t time for T levels.
Dr John Taylor is director of learning, teaching and innovation at Cranleigh School and a member of the Chartered Institute of Educational Assessors.