If you had a magic funding wand which you could wave over just one part of further education, which bit would you choose? Not an easy decision; the whole sector does incredible work with limited funds that have to stretch further every year. You might opt for SEND and high-needs, English and maths or enrichment, as just some examples. You will have others. If I had the wand, it would be the "transition phase", which may well cover all of the key areas mentioned above.
There has been a lot of focus on T levels over the past 18 months; level 3, rigorous, substantial study programmes with industry placements of up to 60 days. There hadn't been much focus on transition until the publication of the Expression of Interest for potential 2021 providers. As part of applying to be a 2021 provider, organisations can also join 2020 providers in expressing an interest in delivering the transition offer, which the December 2018 T level Action Plan confirmed will be aimed at those students who are not ready to embark on a T level.
This could include two different groups of students; those who have five or more GCSEs at grade 4 and above, but aren't quite sure about which technical route is right for them, and another, much larger group of level 2 students (and perhaps some level 1 on current craft qualifications for example) who aren't ready for a T level. It needs to be remembered that level 2 provision makes up just over 20 per cent of the college cohort and that 48 per cent of current level 3 students start this level at 17, suggesting that it is more than likely that they studied a level 2 programme in the previous year.
The issue of funding
Full funding for three years post-16 is proposed in the T-level funding consultation and, of course, welcomed. But at this stage there is no commitment to fund a more substantial programme for the transition phase, which, as the pipeline to T levels, is arguably the game-changer in terms of T-level success and social mobility for many.
The Department for Education will be working with those providers that wish to deliver a transition programme on its design. But where to start? There isn't a lot of research into this cohort, as recognised in the recent Ofsted report on level 2 study programmes. As part of its own research, however, the inspectorate identifies these students as more likely than level 3 students to have special educational needs, to come from more disadvantaged backgrounds and to not hold GCSEs in English and maths. They are also more likely to be male.
The report also suggests that the following are key to a successful level 2 programme:
- Comprehensive information, advice and guidance starting at school with links to local employment opportunities;
- Comprehensive initial assessment;
- Focus on personal development and behaviours to increase confidence;
- Employability/work related learning;
- Work experience.
Perhaps these could be extended to a transition offer. It would certainly be difficult to argue with any of Ofsted’s recommendations, apart, possibly, from the emphasis on local job opportunities; some young people will have aspirations to work further afield and some need to be re-engaged with education after poor educational experiences pre-16 before thinking about work. There could be further recommendations, too: enrichment opportunities including youth social action to build greater social capital, teamwork and confidence. Study skills to prepare for the rigour of T levels will also be required.
Developing English and maths skills, appropriate to individual needs, will be crucial and core to any transition offer to enable progression. The opportunity to take either GCSE or functional skills (in line with T levels) is also key, but so is an appropriate level of funding. The T-level consultation document suggests £750 per subject for English and maths over and above T-level funding. This level of additional funding to a year-long programme would offer the opportunity for smaller class sizes and out-of-class support, although staff recruitment, retention and student motivation could still make it challenging.
We need to remember that students are attracted to technical education by the subject area and the specific skills on offer. Offering options broadly related to T-level routes – engineering and construction; business, admin, finance, accounting and legal; health and education childcare; land-based, creative industries; and service industries – with opportunities for extended tasters across these broader areas would help students make more informed decision about the route, pathway and even specialism they might want to pursue.
Any programme needs to be underpinned by comprehensive induction which helps to ensure that students feel they are on the most appropriate programme to meet their needs and progression aims.
For those students who are ready to embark upon a T level, but are undecided as to which route to choose, a similar offer of tasters in Year 11 or after their GCSEs, alongside comprehensive and impartial information, advice and guidance, would help in decision-making. It would, of course, be helpful if this were underpinned by a greater focus on technical progression routes throughout the secondary phase.
There are, of course, a number of questions still to be addressed. How will the programme be recognised and assessed? Certification for each part and or an overarching "pre-T level"?
What about students for whom a T level is not the appropriate progression route, either because they want to embark upon an apprenticeship or progress on to a non-T level subject, such as performing arts or sport? Or those who progress from level 1 or below to level 2? Running multiple options at this level might not be viable and young people have to have the flexibility to change their minds.
Colleges have a great deal of experience and success in working with students on lower level programmes, and many are already thinking through their potential offer. But often blue sky thinking can be limited by lack of funding. Investment here could open up many more opportunities for students to achieve their true potential.
Catherine Sezen is senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges