T levels: Why qualifications are not always the answer

Introducing new qualifications alone will not change further education, writes Sam Jones

Sam Jones

T levels may not bring the change the government is looking for, writes Sam Jones

I have worked in FE for about 20 years now and, as a result, I have seen lots of qualifications come and go. Over time, I have become less concerned by specification updates or qualification changes – not because they don’t matter, but because as a general rule they don’t change things on the ground in the way policymakers anticipate.

That is my concern with the new T levels. My worry is that their implementation will not substantially change the most significant part of the learners’ experience: the experience they have with the provider.


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Qualification change

I vividly remember the first time I came across work from the Transforming Learning Cultures (TLC) project, which discussed qualification change in the sector and how little these changes really made a difference to what was going on on the ground. I smiled, as I recognised this experience when I worked with colleagues to get the diplomas (a short-lived vocational qualification designed to meet the needs of employers) off the ground, and how we tried to shoehorn these new qualifications into our existing practices, adapting the policy and qualification so our practice moved as little as possible.

I can begin to see the same things happen with T levels, with the government expecting certain changes on the ground that simply do not happen. For example, the government initially expected to be training new staff coming in from industry to teach on T levels – whereas, on the ground, colleges have been taking the decision to use their existing staff.

Perhaps the government was at that point unaware of the years it can take to become expert in teaching a vocational subject, or maybe they were simply ignoring the wage differential between highly specialised industry staff and lecturers in further education colleges.

Although staffing is a major concern for T levels, it is not the issue I think is most problematic. I am interested in a subject which goes to the heart of the learners’ outcome in technical education. I believe that learners, employers and educators are searching for models that develop what Dewey (1916) calls "intelligent action". This is the idea that a human looks at a situation or problem, understands all the different variables affecting it and can use their knowledge to discern the course of action that has the desired outcome.

In my own experience of working with teachers teaching technical subjects and trades, and from my own research, developing this type of action is incredibly important. Teachers want their students to act intelligently when they reach the workplace, and here they agree with the feedback that we get from employers. This is hardly surprising, as these teachers would have previously been the employers or their colleagues; they understand the expectations.

This is not easy, because teachers have all sorts of experience and expert knowledge that learners don’t. Being able to look at and understand the variables that form a problem is a real skill which develops through experience and guided practice and this is the absolute knot of the problem for me. I just don’t believe it will be developed solely through 45 days in placement – which is what a T level requires.

As theorists such as Stevenson argue, vocational knowledge is situated, that is you learn in a set of circumstances that the knowledge is tied to this set of circumstances; so, for example, it is difficult to teach milling without a lathe. Add to this the evidence that knowledge doesn’t move easily between the classroom and workplace and you begin to get an idea that students are going to need lots of exposure to workplaces, in simulated situations and in environments that replicate workplaces.

Here we are moving closer towards the problem that I don’t feel T levels address. Workplace replication is an expensive, and often fast-changing environment. They contain technologies that are not easily affordable for FE colleges and this limits the opportunity for learners to practise and learn how to take intelligent action around them. This is further compounded by the limited guided-learning hours given to these qualifications that will not allow for the type of repetition skills and actions required for these practices to become habitual.

Therefore, I would argue it appears to be unrealistic to expect qualifications alone to change further education. I would suggest that alongside qualification change, we need to consider the learning environments of our students and the funding given to achieve this. So, while placements as "real world" case studies begin to move these technicians of the future towards productive careers, I would suggest that their learning experiences and outcomes require a little more of a nuanced consideration.

Sam Jones is a lecturer at Bedford College, founder of FE Research Meet and was FE Teacher of the Year at the Tes FE Awards 2019

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