The news that top grades in T levels will be awarded the same number of points as A*s at A level by university admissions body Ucas is just what the FE sector, and industry, needed to hear. It’s the first big milestone in the search for parity of esteem between the big three qualifications of A and T levels and apprenticeships.
The result could and should be that young people will have a clear choice in future between the three pathways. If it works it will mean for the first time in our country’s history there will be genuinely equal opportunities for a successful career open to all.
Overpopulated with elephants
This is, however, a room overpopulated with elephants. Parity of esteem goes wider than recognition by Ucas. To thrive, and to help the economy do so, T levels must be equally valued at schools, at work and in the millions of homes where every year crucial educational choices are made. For that to happen, there must be an end to the bums on seats mentality of some institutions which pull potential students in directions to which they are not suited for the sake of their own funding.
Earlier this year at Milton Keynes College, we looked at local schools’ responses to the requirements of the Baker Clause of the Technical and Further Education Act 2017, whereby they are obliged to allow colleges and training providers access to every student in Years 8 to 13 to discuss the non-academic routes available to them. Every school is legally required to publish a policy statement setting out its arrangements for provider access and to ensure this is adhered to. Of the 13 schools to which this applies in our city, only four were compliant. This is not a question of oversight and this manipulation of the system is experienced by FE colleges up and down the country.
I know of a sixth form that invited representatives from an FE college about 20 miles away to talk to pupils – knowing few would travel that far – while ignoring the one half a mile down the road. Numerous students and parents have told me their teachers have warned them FE is a poor option and that apprenticeships are not worthwhile.
Disillusioned young people
Students at Milton Keynes have received phone calls from their old schools, after they’ve begun studying with us saying, “We’ve found a place for you. Come back and do some proper education.” The net result, of course, is that disillusioned young people come to us after dropping out of sixth form having found it inappropriate for them, a year’s funding and a whole lot of self-esteem and confidence lost as a result.
Then there are the schools offering vocational courses by PowerPoint, with no kitchens for catering students, no engineering workshops, no staff with industry experience and know-how. T levels could also be vulnerable to dilution of this sort. It’s a situation which cannot be allowed to continue and it would be wrong to tar all schools with the same brush.
There are many where the value of a choice of educational routes for their pupils is recognised and that want to be fully cooperative in the process to address the yawning skills gap. The fault lies not with schools or colleges but with a funding system which sees different institutions forced into overly fierce competition in order to chase inadequate resources.
How hard will they push?
Another, equally significant elephant will be how hard the government is prepared to push to make sure parents and young people alike are fully aware of the potential of T levels from launch. Will we see advertisements in the breaks in Coronation Street explaining them and extolling their virtues? Will there be a door-to-door leafleting campaign? Will Facebook and Twitter be filled with promotions? Will government ministers take every opportunity to talk T levels, or even consider encouraging their own children to study them?
Parity of esteem from Ucas for T levels is great. Everybody else, please form an orderly queue.
Chris McLean is principal of Milton Keynes College