Six ways FE can avoid the mistakes of the past

From a lack of parity of esteem to poor public understanding, Mary Curnock Cook identifies the six roadblocks facing the FE sector

Mary Curnock Cook

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FE and skills are widely regarded as central to a new industrial strategy after years of being ignored, underpowered and underfunded. But if this new approach to technical and professional education is to provide a credible alternative to the well-trodden academic route of GCSEs and A levels, and avoid foundering as quickly and comprehensively as many earlier skills initiatives, it will need to confront these six mistakes of the past.

1. Parity of esteem

The quest for parity of esteem between the proposed T levels and A levels may be a false promise and a self-defeating goal. If the new technical routes are to have credibility among young people, parents and teachers, then the critical ingredient is currency for progression to employment or further learning.

When they are routinely requested by employers and proudly stated on CVs, they will have achieved the status they need. This will happen if the learning they engender is valuable and the assessment is regulated and rigorous.

There should be no need for them to be unhelpfully benchmarked against A levels which have a different purpose and structure.

2. Public understanding

The enduring currency of GCSEs and A levels has been underpinned by high levels of public understanding of exactly whom and what these qualifications are for. This should be a goal for the new technical routes, too.

For example, the list of routes set out in the post-16 skills plan shows "creative and design" as preparing students for occupations such as "art producer, graphic designer, audio-visual technician, journalist, product/clothing designer, upholsterer, tailor, furniture maker".

It is difficult to imagine a single qualification which could adequately cover all this (as well as all those sofas). With the 15 proposed routes mixing industry sectors such as "agriculture" and occupations such as "marketing", potential candidates will struggle to understand what exactly they will be qualified for.

3. What’s in a name?

A levels are "advanced", as opposed to ‘ordinary’ O levels. But the term ‘T level’ conflates a purpose (technical) and the scale of the challenge (level) involved, which is troubling.

If T levels are to be level 3 qualifications, which is the regulated position of A levels, then what term will be used for level 2 technical and professional qualifications?

An intuitive naming convention for the new routes – and the qualifications associated with them – will be essential for public understanding and to offer clarity for employers.

4. Tripartism...

The government seeks to split qualifications into distinct technical and academic pathways without fully considering what to do with the "applied general" qualifications category, which includes the popular BTECs.

Papering over the obvious overlaps with the proposed T levels, by re-categorising them as "academic" qualification, will ensure widespread confusion among students trying to pick the right qualifications to support their future and employers trying to understand the suitability of job applicants.

5. ...or bipartism?

Before the massification of post-16 education, it was the norm for school sixth-forms to deliver a predominantly academic curriculum. It is only relatively recently that schools have ventured into what used to be exclusively FE college territory to deliver vocational qualifications such as BTECs – albeit often without the workbenches and realistic working environments that colleges offer.

The Sainsbury Review anticipates the new routes being delivered in colleges, either full-time or as part of an apprenticeship. If they do gain the desired currency and reputation for employability with the consequent demand for their delivery in colleges, many school sixth-forms could cease to be viable. Is that the intention – A levels in schools and T levels in colleges?

On the other hand, if schools continue to deliver applied general qualifications such as BTECs, colleges may struggle to recruit adequate demand for T levels.

6. Careers education

Although the Sainsbury Review envisages that the same technical routes would also be delivered in an age-appropriate way for adult learners, the Skills Plan is clearly aimed at 16- to19-year-olds and T levels will be promoted as a post-GCSE option.

While it is relatively easy and safe for a young student to choose three or four of their best GCSE subjects to continue at A level, they will have had no prior exposure to the 15 pathways. How could a science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) orientated GCSE student, for example, choose confidently between the "engineering and manufacturing" pathway and "transport and logistics" pathways?

A serious approach to careers education is essential to underpin the new technical and professional routes.

Mary Curnock Cook is the former CEO of UCAS and current chair of governors at Kensington and Chelsea College. This is an edited version of an article she has written for the Higher Education Policy Institute.

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