My college recently hosted the Department for Education’s T-level development team. The experience was encouraging, as was the willingness of team members to talk with staff and students. It’s clear that a lot of thought and effort is going into T levels. But are they really the answer to our technical education problems?
Whether we like it or not, the first 25 years of young people’s lives are dominated by qualifications – preparing or them, achieving them, accumulating them and having better ones than anyone else. Our childhood is no longer a Darwinian struggle for food and resources, but a scramble for certificates and grades. As Baroness Wolf puts it: “Formal qualifications are the gatekeepers to the entire labour market in a way that would have been inconceivable in the recent past.”
Ultimately, a qualification’s currency among employers is what makes it valuable. It is in essence a “ticket to ride” in the employment market. The currency of A levels and degrees is now accepted by employers and therefore by students, parents, schools and colleges.
For T levels to have similar currency, they will need to be just as credible. That won’t be a quick process. A number of stages will be necessary, from ensuring employers are happy with course content, to testing the delivery model and checking that T-level graduates are actually the skilled recruits employers crave. Common sense tells us this will take each T level three-to-five years.
Until these stages have been completed and successful T-level graduates are thriving in the labour market, students, parents, schools and colleges will hesitate to choose them. This will lead to two problems. First, high-flying learners will be reluctant to risk their prospects by enrolling onto an untried and untested programme. Secondly, and partly as a result, T levels will from the start be perceived by many to be second-best to A levels.
So how can T levels avoid joining their predecessors in the graveyard of failed vocational qualifications? The best way would be to get a number of high-status employers to commit in advance to employing all of those who successfully complete pilot programmes. A guaranteed job for all who take the first T levels would send a powerful signal. It would attract ambitious and capable students. It would kick-start the T-level initiative and give it a fighting chance of gaining credibility quickly.
Would employers commit to this? I doubt it – not without some kind of incentive. So why not allow the full cost of employing T-level graduates to be counted as part of a company’s apprenticeship levy spending for the first few years of their employment? Without this, or something similar, T levels risk becoming another footnote in the long history of England’s sad decline in technical education.
Andy Forbes is principal and CEO of the College of Haringey, Enfield and North East London