The current system of technical education, with over 13,000 post-16 technical courses, is notoriously difficult to navigate. Any attempt to simplify this overcrowded system into 15 broad occupational pathways is welcome. But there is still a range of questions about how this new system will work.
What will the elusive transition period look like? How can providers and employers gear up to deliver substantial work experience placements? How can a larger cultural change around the prestige of technical education be inspired?
Focus on employability
At heart, the focus of these new qualifications needs to be employability. Learners and their parents need to be convinced that undertaking a T level will prepare them for the changing world of work and give them the skills they need to succeed.
But this is not the first time that there has been a wholescale-reform of technical qualifications, and it is not unexpected that there may be a sense of fatigue in the FE sector towards yet another suite of reforms. Take 14-19 diplomas, which were introduced in 2005 and abandoned a few years later.
But T levels do present the latest and best chance we have of shaping a system of technical education that provides learners with opportunity and business with the talent it needs. The focus needs to be on how employers, government and providers can come together to identify solutions and make T levels a success.
This article forms the first part of a series looking at three key issues which we think are crucial to get right. These are the need to embed employability, the importance of the transition period and why a flexible approach needs to be taken to the work experience question.
At heart, the Sainsbury reforms are trying to address a profound cultural question: Why is it the case that technical education is not as respected by learners, their parents, and employers to the same extent as academic education?
We are, after all, faced with a situation in which almost all major industries report a massive skills gap. The demand for highly skilled professionals is there but the demand is going unmet. Unfortunately, a system of technical and professional education is not culturally ingrained in the UK to the extent it is within many of our European neighbours.
A large part of this is the perception that university provides learners with a better pathway to progression and employment than technical pathways. Employers are setting university degrees as a prerequisite for jobs that do not require one, and this has created a huge oversupply of university graduates.
But this supply of university talent is not creating the work-ready, skilled professionals that our economy needs. This necessitates a need to invest in technical education and recognise the role it will play in seeking to address our long-term skills and employment challenges.
The task of these qualifications then is to convince not just learners, but also their parents, that undertaking a T level stands you with an equal opportunity to progress into secure, long-term employment.
Inspiring this wider cultural change hinges on one important proviso: That T-levels adequately prepare young people for the world of work. To do this, they must focus on embedding a shared and assessable framework of general “work-readiness” skills across the 15 routes. There are certainly elements that will be common across all 15 routes regardless of specialisation and occupation.
The need for functional English and maths, which can be applied flexibly in a range of contexts, is essential. When contending with the uncertainty posed by a changing labour market and the impacts of automation, having a baseline level of digital skills will also be crucial for learners.
Clear progression routes needed
Equally important is the need for the curriculum to embed more general work readiness skills such as team-working, communication and problem-solving skills. It is often said by employers that they are not satisfied with the general “work-readiness of new recruits, but by embedding this focus as a part of the core curriculum, learners who undertake a T level are better placed to emerge fully formed into their workforce.
But while T levels will be important, they will not represent the totality of our skills needs. What is needed is clear progression routes both prior to and after the completion of a T-level course. They should support learners onto an apprenticeship or progression towards HNC or HND qualifications or employment.
A big part of this will be the long-awaited review of provision at Levels 4-5, ensuring the credibility of progression options at higher levels will be key. The fact remains that most provision is delivered at Level 2 and below and so ensuring progression routes from the lower levels up to Level 3 will make the proposed transition year so important. But that is one for the next article.
Ian Pretty is chief executive of the Collab Group. He tweets at @ianpretty1