“You know you will never get to the end of the journey but this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb.” So said Winston Churchill almost a century ago.
While reforming vocational qualifications often feels like a steep climb, we should remember that the changes made since 2010 have been far more dramatic and consequential than anything devised for GCSEs or A levels. Whether this journey will come to an end with the new T levels is another matter, however.
Professor Alison Wolf’s review of vocational qualifications in 2011 fired the starting gun on what became a promising and eventful reform programme. Her devastating findings on the dreadful quality of some qualifications and the alarming number of young people still taking them sent a shiver down the spine of anyone who cherishes high-quality education.
This pivotal review, along with several others published in the months to follow, provided ample cover for the former skills minister Matthew Hancock to introduce “tech levels” in July 2013.
A new wave of vocational qualifications is, of course, nothing new. However, what was particularly impressive about tech levels was the speed with which their impact was felt. Before the advent of tech levels, there were more than 5,000 vocational qualifications available for those aged 16 to 19, making the system virtually impenetrable to young people and employers. When you consider, by contrast, that there are currently 57 subjects available as A levels, you can see the scale of the problem. Something had to be done.
The recent announcement of T levels, through which students at age 16 will embark on one of 15 technical education routes, has been presented as a solution to this problem. Each route would contain work-based and college-based courses for different occupations. In addition, each qualification at levels 2 and 3 would be delivered by a single organisation instead of multiple awarding bodies.
'T levels promise too much'
So how radical are these changes? The names of the 15 new routes bear a striking resemblance to groups of tech levels already available: “agriculture, horticulture and animal care” becomes “agriculture, environmental and animal care”; “catering and hospitality” becomes “hospitality and catering”; and “hair and beauty” becomes, well, “hair and beauty”.
The government has also been coy about exactly how many qualifications or occupations will fit within each of their 15 routes. Yet if there are 204 tech levels, then each new route can only include 13 occupations to avoid potentially making the system more complicated than the present offer. Moreover, a government-commissioned report in July warned that the complexities of moving to a single awarding body per route introduced “a risk of system failure”.
We already have a wide range of employer-endorsed qualifications that cover a large proportion of the territory earmarked for T levels. Letting a thousand T levels bloom would undermine one of the key justifications for introducing them in the first place.
Given the short timescales for getting the first T levels ready, it would also not be a surprise to see the proposals for single awarding bodies quietly dropped.
Owing to the reforms initiated by Matthew Hancock, thousands of substandard qualifications have already been jettisoned. As a result, our vocational system is tantalisingly close to reaching the end of its Churchillian journey: a clear, concise and high-quality offer for young people, regardless of which path they choose.
With a little coaxing, tech levels can deliver most, if not all, of what ministers want to accomplish with T levels. The greatest danger facing T levels is, therefore, that they promise too much, not too little.
If the only thing they achieve is repackaging tech levels while squeezing out some of the lingering duplication and plugging any occupational gaps, this would be no bad thing. Let’s hope that education secretary Justine Greening and current skills minister Anne Milton don’t feel the need for something on a grander scale.
Tom Richmond is a sixth-form college teacher, former adviser to ministers at the Department for Education and senior policy fellow at the Policy Exchange thinktank.