I was pleased to read Mick Fletcher’s article in Tes on Friday, because we need more debate and discussion about the purpose of T levels and about the concept of social mobility. There’s a lot in the article which I agree with, some things I think need more exploration and some things which I disagree with.
I wholeheartedly agree that the structure of the labour market is problematic and that FE colleges cannot change it on their own. There are many issues about the labour market which are problematic and which I will come back to in a different blog another day. Today I want to focus on T levels and social mobility.
Social mobility is a problematic term and concept. The relative nature of social mobility is difficult to square if you believe in a society that cares about and cares for all its citizens. The big risk with social mobility is that one person’s upward mobility is at the expense of someone else’s downward mobility.
That’s why I prefer "equity", but like others I often fall back into the more currently trendy term because it is simply easier to be heard if you adopt it. With Mick’s nudge, I will try to be more careful from now on.
Fairness and justice
Equity is a much nicer concept to deal with because it is about fairness and justice, which are more absolute and can apply to everyone. For me, this means that every child should have the same chances to develop their talent and achieve their ambitions. Unfortunately, that is far from the case in England now – the educational achievement of your parents still has a disproportionate impact on your life chances, and the education system at least colludes in that outcome, perhaps even compounds the inequalities in early life.
The collusion comes from an education system focused for too long and too narrowly on one measure of success – achievement of a three-year undergraduate degree. That success measure is largely underpinned by one pedagogy and assessment through one method – written exams that prioritise some skills (memory, writing, understanding of theory) over others (practical, planning, project management, team-working, problem-solving). It’s not the case that one set of skills is better or worse than the other – it is just that they are different. That difference, though, is ignored in our education system, so education institutions collude in a system that prizes one over the other.
Because of that singular focus on what success looks like and on the one pedagogy and assessment methodology, education from an early age suits some and not others It’s part of the reason why too many young people (two-thirds of FSM pupils) failing to achieve good grades in GCSE English and maths at age 16. It always will be unless we change the focus of the system from at least age 14 and change the assessment approach.
T levels could help here because they could be different – in curriculum, in pedagogy, in content and in assessment. That difference could motivate young people to achieve if we were able to introduce technical courses alongside GCSEs from age 14. Wouldn’t it be great to design a system which tried to motivate every young person to develop their talents and achieve their ambitions – through different approaches, curriculum and assessment. For too many young people, GCSEs and A levels don’t do that. T levels and pre-16 changes might if we get them right.
That’s a prize worth fighting for and T levels are still in development, still open to change. Let’s make sure that we really understand their place in the system for all learners, from age 14, not age 16. Let’s develop a vision for all young people, giving them chances to experiment with different subjects in different ways. That would be fair, that would help deliver more justice. Whether it would deliver social mobility is another question, of course.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges.