For those who opt for the academic route, the pathway has always been clear: from school to A levels to university and (hopefully) a graduate job. But for those who do not follow this route, the pathway is often less straightforward.
The Sainsbury Review highlighted serious weaknesses with our technical education system, and more recently, the Learning and Work Institute’s Youth Commission called for a focus on improving attainment at level 3 by expanding high-quality technical education.
The government has been seeking to address these weaknesses with the most far-reaching reforms to technical education in a generation. Crucial to this is the introduction of T levels. Designed to be the technical equivalent of A levels, these new qualifications aim to offer young people high-quality, classroom-based training, combined with an industry placement.
T levels: outstanding questions
The first T levels set to commence delivery in September 2020, but some big questions remain.
- If T levels are to be a success, young people need access to high-quality information, advice and guidance. The government recently introduced the Baker clause – a legal requirement for schools to allow colleges access to their pupils to inform them of opportunities in technical education. But recent research has shown that one year on, two-in-three schools are flouting this requirement, and colleges say that access to schools hasn’t improved. The government must ensure that schools and colleges work together, and that all young people get the advice they need to choose the path that is right for them.
- If T levels are to give young people a taste of work in the sector, we need to ensure that there are enough high-quality work placements. T levels must include a relevant industry placement lasting at least 45 working days. Recent research for the Department for Education has shown that while employers welcome the idea of T-level work placements, many are concerned about the cost to the organisation involved in supervising and training a young person. The government should consider whether employers should be able to use some of their apprenticeship-levy funds to offset these costs, in order to encourage more to offer work placements.
- If all young people are to be able to access opportunities, then T levels need to be available in every community across the country. Our Youth Opportunity Index shows how life chances for young people are already unevenly distributed, and there is concern that we will see a similar picture with T levels. The chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, Sir Gerry Berragan, recently admitted that the availability of T levels would be “inherently geographic” with a narrower offer in more rural areas. Rather than delivering all 25 T levels, colleges are likely to specialise, and only offer courses where there is sufficient local demand and sufficient local industry placements. So, while a young person growing up in Greater Manchester may be able to choose from the full breadth of options available at one of many local colleges, a young person in Margate may have fewer options. While colleges in London may find it easy to secure work placements across a broad range of sectors, a college in Lincoln may not.
- If T levels are to provide high-quality, industry-relevant training, then we need well-funded colleges able to attract and retain a skilled and experienced workforce. Yet – as the Love our Colleges campaign has shown – the average college has seen a real-terms funding cut of 30 per cent and many workers haven’t had a pay rise in years. As a result, colleges are struggling to attract and retain teachers with industry-relevant knowledge and skills. The government has announced an £8 million fund to help ensure staff in the FE sector are ready for T levels, as part of an additional £500m per year by 2022 for the sector to deliver the new qualifications. But after years of austerity, there are real doubts as to whether this will be enough.
- Finally, if T levels are to be the start of a successful career, they need to fit seamlessly within the system, with clear routes into them and clear pathways for progression to higher-level study. Rather than being an end point, T levels need to be a stepping stone with options to progress either to higher or degree-level apprenticeships, to higher-level technical education at college or to academic study at university. The secretary of state’s plans to develop higher technical qualifications at level 4 and 5 in time for delivery from 2022 could be part of the solution, helping to address the longstanding lack of options for intermediate and higher-level technical provision.
T levels offer an opportunity to transform the system for the better. But with just over 18 months to go before the first students enrol, big questions remain. Whether or not T levels succeed will depend on whether the government can find answers to these.
Joe Dromey is deputy director of research and development at the Learning and Work Institute