Apprenticeships aren’t for everyone. So we at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) would be among the first to agree that T levels could offer a clear classroom- and work-based route through technical education that is easy to navigate, and which optimises choice for learners.
Just like with the levy reforms, however, we find ourselves arguing that the proposed blueprint runs counter to the government’s social mobility agenda. In the AELP’s response to the Department for Education’s T-level consultation, we say that it would be a mistake not to build in technical learning at Level 2. There seems to be a view that with a bit of a push, everyone can jump straight to a Level 3. Robust evidence suggests this is not true and, if ignored, will undermine the agenda.
Level 2 is an important entry point for those who have been let down at school and have not attained it at the end of compulsory education. More specifically, many occupations require entry at Level 2, no matter which prior learning has been attained. So they should be considered as having a standalone value rather than merely as progression vehicles towards Level 3.
Many technical vocations have not been taught at all in the compulsory education period, making the availability of Level 2 training even more important post-16. A suite of qualifications should therefore be recognised at Level 2 in addition to Level 3, using the existing study-programme strand as the entry ramp to T-level study, with a "transition offer" available for learners with SEND/LLDD.
The work placement is the most crucial part of the T-level concept and must provide a worthwhile experience for both the learner and their potential employer if T levels are to gain traction; without it, why are we bothering? The principal elements of each T-level standard should be demonstrated in associated work placements, rather than let the content of the work placement be designed at an individual provider or employer level.
There must be clear guidelines as to what constitutes a "successful" work placement, and whether previous time spent in an unsuccessful placement can be counted against the 45 to 60-day requirement for the new placement.
A work placement requirement should last for between 45 and 60 days, with the same weekly commitment as the learning programme, but we should allow exceptional cases where this may be varied, such as for those with special needs or defined circumstances relating to specific sectors. You would have thought that the government would be falling over itself to involve independent training providers in the work-placement pilots, rather than under 5 per cent (or one).
We can’t make the assumption that if there are skill shortages in a local area, companies in the area will be able to provide work placements to help address the issue. Without the availability of work placements, nothing else counts, so while all support will be welcome, the government must be prepared to put money into enabling providers to identify suitable placements with employers and then help learners get to them.
Providers as cornerstones
The work-placement element is one reason why the core competencies of apprenticeship and traineeship providers should be a cornerstone in the building of any new strand of technical learning provision. Furthermore, much more testing of T-level delivery is required in non-college environments to ensure that they fully utilise the potential benefits of roll-on, roll-off provision and the range of expertise that the independent sector has working with employers.
The AELP supports funding systems that allow responsive growth in the early stages of a new initiative before settling into a more predictable approach once uptake has stabilised. Partnerships will be vital in making T levels work, particularly in the early stages between those best placed to deliver classroom-based learning and those best placed to manage and support work placements. It is vital that funding flows do not limit the ability of the infrastructure to partner, subcontract or grow in ways that encourage high-quality delivery models from emerging.
There are also many independent providers delivering innovative study programmes that could form the basis of T-level delivery and more should be encouraged to become engaged, using a flexible funding system that is provider-neutral and open to all.
We really want to see T levels succeed, but under the current proposals, they look like the qualification a learner would take in the event they cannot get an apprenticeship and a BTEC is no longer available – very much a second-tier option. There is still much work to be done.
Mark Dawe is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers