There are many challenges in education, but if there were only one holy grail to highlight in England, for me it would be the aim of equalising the prestige between academic and technical education. Despite the many reports and conferences and a fair number of (failed) policy reforms, the balance of prestige has stubbornly refused to budge. So when the government launches yet another major policy reform in this area, we should all keep our feet firmly on the ground and be cautious in our optimism.
Having said that, last weekend’s publication of the government’s implementation plan for T levels gives me more cause for hope than I have had for a long while. It’s clear from the tone of the document, the pledges to work with colleges and employers through the implementation and the changes that have been made that this is a thoughtful and sensible change programme. I am, of course, pleased that our work with Association of Colleges members has had an impact and that the changes we sought have been made, but far more than that pleases me. What’s most important, and relatively rare, is that this is viewed as joint venture between the government, colleges, employers and others.
That bodes well for the implementation, because this is a complex and long-term change that will need agile leadership, true partnership and cross-party support, rather than dogma and party politicking. The history of failed reforms presents its own challenges because there is undoubtedly a scepticism, with many people thinking: “We’ve done this before and it didn’t work.” So it was nice to see the implementation plan referring to previous reforms and showing that lessons have been learned.
Overall, this is a good package of reforms and should help to improve the prestige of technical professional education, but we must not underestimate the deep-seated and long-standing culture in our country that has never recognised the importance of anything other than a traditional academic education.
The new T levels will compete with more established qualifications (particularly A levels), replace some (BTECs, potentially) and will be untried and not very well understood in the early years.
Those challenges mean we need real clarity of purpose, strong alignment with employers and the labour market, better understanding among schools and a funding settlement that is fair and realistic. The good news is that most of these issues have been addressed by the government in its plans, even if there is more work to do on each.
The purpose of the T levels is to support young people (aged 16-23 primarily) to take “rigorous, classroom-based technical study programmes at level 3, designed to support entry to skilled employment in technical occupations at level 3 and above”.
That’s pretty clear, but where they will lead and how straightforward the progression will be into good jobs and higher-level learning (at college, university or apprenticeship) will matter enormously in how they are perceived. It is the perception of young people, their families, carers and schools that will matter most.
There’s an important parallel policy review going on that will help or hinder the development of T levels. The post-18 education and funding review will need to show that people achieving T levels are able to go on to what we at the AoC have called “higher T levels”. Higher T levels should be developed with fair funding to make them attractive as high-quality alternatives to the three-year residential bachelor’s degree route. That reform would help to secure the T level as part of a new system, not just another name or label.
Putting the effort in
Employers will also need to help in making this work. Their support for recognising the new T levels as entry requirements for recruitment will be as important as their engagement on industry placements. It is right that the T levels place so much emphasis on a substantial industry placement, but the quality of that experience for the student will depend on employers putting a lot of effort in.
There are many positive signs. The more the Department for Education works on this, the more it appears that colleges will be key to success. Their ability to take young people who have not reached their potential at age 16 and who might lack the skills, confidence and motivation to achieve, and get them on track to start a T level is vital; as is their capability to deliver progression to higher-level technical learning, using up-to-date facilities, industry-knowledgeable staff and great employer partnerships.
Colleges are ready and planning to meet the challenges; and the government recognises the need to invest in them. I hope that we will be able to persuade ministers to do the same for higher-level technical learning as well. A clear pathway to progress from a transition year to a T level and on to higher learning at the college and work will be a critical success factor in the overall reforms. Colleges are best placed to deliver that.
For those who remain sceptical, I would urge you to get involved. So far, we have encountered officials who want to cooperate and who are comfortable making difficult decisions when views are split. I’m not sure we can expect any more than that – there is no simple right or wrong in reforms like this. Anybody who is certain that they know what will work best is almost certainly wrong. What we have is the opportunity to develop a new and better system over a number of years through an agile and flexible change process. I’ll buy that approach any day, and I believe that it is worth the effort to help to make things work better than they do now.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges