History won’t repeat itself if we learn from FE’s past

23rd March 2018 at 00:00
If the government learns from the previous failed attempts to kickstart the skills economy, it could make T levels work. Kirstie Donnelly has five pieces of advice

We’ve recently come to the end of another National Apprenticeship Week. Throughout the week, the Department for Education, educators and employers organise events to showcase the benefits of apprenticeships. What’s more, the media becomes (thankfully) more receptive than usual to stories about the ways in which apprenticeships support progression and productivity.

There is a way to go before the apprenticeship pathway is respected in the same way as going to university is seen as a valuable route into employment. But after considerable promotion – and, of course, a new levy – apprenticeships are increasingly being seen as a skills solution and a good option.

I mention this to make the point that technical education still needs a helping hand to be considered by young people and their parents as a viable route through to employment – and to be recognised by employers in certain industries. We don’t have a dedicated A levels or Universities Week, but everyone is clear about these routes through to work, along with the attractiveness of studying for these qualifications.

Yet, a new technical qualification is set to be introduced in 2020. T levels are billed as an alternative to A levels and as a high-quality route through to employment, higher education or apprenticeships. While I absolutely agree with the need to provide a high-quality technical education offer for young people and the rationale behind streamlining the current system to make it easier to understand and value, there are some essentials the government must get right if T levels are to become a success.


1. Be clear about the purpose of T levels and make them attractive to young people and their parents

T levels are set to roll out from 2020, meaning young people who are now in Year 9 will be eligible to take the new qualifications. For take-up to be significant, there needs to be a huge push by government to promote the benefits of T levels, as well as to explain exactly what they are and whom they are aimed at. How do they differ from apprenticeships and how will they help a young person to progress into further study or work?

2. Think holistically about technical education and focus on progression

Apprenticeships have undergone sweeping reforms with the introduction of standards and the shift to employer ownership.

There needs to be joined-up thinking across technical education so that young people can progress into T levels and onto apprenticeships without repeating content. This also applies across both academic and technical education. Let’s not force a binary choice on young people, but instead look for ways to combine technical and academic education.

3. Focus on common employability skills that T levels can develop

Employers tell us time and again that there needs to be a much greater emphasis on employability skills in education.

T levels give us an opportunity to design a programme that provides a consistent and robust approach to teaching and assessing employability skills.

Let’s take this opportunity to agree a common framework that would help prepare young people for work.

4. Employer involvement is important, but don’t assume they can do everything

Employers know best which skills and occupational competencies they need, and we support a move towards increased employer involvement in the system to ensure it meets their needs. However, they have neither the time nor the expertise to design qualification content and assessment; this should be left to the experts who have proven experience in developing technical qualifications.

5. The work placement is what sets T levels apart – it’s too important to get wrong

The work-placement element is an exciting proposition, as it sets T levels apart from other classroom-based offerings. However, it needs proper investment and support if it is to succeed. Employers and providers have told us they would really struggle to offer work placements without support and investment from the government, particularly small- and medium-sized enterprises, which don’t have the resources to manage such programmes.

The timing and length of work placements also need to be reassessed, with more flexibility built in, so that it works for all. Could the placement take place during year two and act more as a sandwich placement between T levels and apprenticeships?


We’ve been here before. We must learn from lessons of the past. Well-intentioned policies, such as the 14-19 diploma, foundered after only a few years, leaving learners with a qualification that employers do not understand or value; large sums of public money were also wasted on development costs.

T levels have the potential to improve the employability of young people, and to reduce skill gaps and shortages in this country. Let’s put the right resources behind them to make them a success and to offer the quality technical education we so desperately need.

Kirstie Donnelly is managing director of City and Guilds, ILM and Digitalme

Subscribe to get access to the content on this page.

If you are already a Tes/ Tes Scotland subscriber please log in with your username or email address to get full access to our back issues, CPD library and membership plus page.

Not a subscriber? Find out more about our subscription offers.
Subscribe now
Existing subscriber?
Enter subscription number

The guide by your side – ensuring you are always up to date with the latest in education.

Get Tes magazine online and delivered to your door. Stay up to date with the latest research, teacher innovation and insight, plus classroom tips and techniques with a Tes magazine subscription.
With a Tes magazine subscription you get exclusive access to our CPD library. Including our New Teachers’ special for NQTS, Ed Tech, How to Get a Job, Trip Planner, Ed Biz Special and all Tes back issues.

Subscribe now