T levels: ‘A secretive cull of FE provision’

27th April 2018 at 00:00
Under wide-ranging reforms of technical education, many courses that have previously been taught in college classrooms are expected to become apprenticeship-only. Such a restriction will limit opportunities for young people and could put some colleges in financial jeopardy, college leaders tell George Ryan

In around two years’ time, the first T levels will go live. But not all of them will be delivered in college classrooms.

In his review of technical education in July 2016, Lord Sainsbury recommended drawing up 15 occupational routes. It was envisaged that these routes would create a framework encompassing all employment and college-based technical education at levels 2 to 5.


T levels were born out of the review and announced by the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, in his spring budget the following year. The overhaul will consolidate the current 13,000 or so technical qualifications and set out 15 T-level routes. The first are due to start in 2020, with the rest due to be implemented by 2022.

The Sainsbury review states that four routes are expected to be delivered through apprenticeships only. The four routes are protective services; transport and logistics; sales, marketing and procurement; and social care. The government’s T-level Action Plan, published last October, confirms that this expectation is now all but a certainty.

Devil in the detail

According to figures in the Sainsbury review, there are currently 2.8 million non-graduates who work in the four occupational routes that will purely be apprenticeship-only. While it is completely unclear how many people will opt for the new T levels, this implies that in the near future thousands of learners will have no classroom-based option to enter these careers and will be forced to take an apprenticeship.

FE policy analyst Mick Fletcher says there needs to be an open debate about this. “My main concern is that decisions are being made that potentially affect the opportunities for young people and the jobs of college staff without any public debate,” he adds.

“We know that the unintended consequence of the apprenticeship reforms has been to cut opportunities for 16-18s.

“It seems likely that this secretive cull of FE provision could make matters worse.”


Under the current proposals, there would be no classroom-based T-level option for students considering a career in the armed forces or emergency services. Instead, they would follow a protective services apprenticeship route.

Sam Parrett, the principal of London South East Colleges, says the public services course is one of the most successful and popular at the college. While she accepts the merits of the T-level concept in trying to bring about parity of esteem with more academic A levels, she says the devil is in the detail.

“Any young person wanting to pursue a subject within an apprenticeship-only area will be reliant on finding a willing employer in their area who happens to have a requirement for such a role,” she says.

“This will offer colleges like mine no opportunity to create a pipeline of skilled, potential employees in key areas – with the risk of creating even larger skills gaps than we are seeing already in so many sectors.

“The industry areas being left out don’t necessarily have a single, united employee voice, meaning they are quite fragmented with their concerns not being heard. We need them to come forward so we can ensure they have the qualifications needed for growth and success.”

It is not just the learners on these four routes who face losing out on a classroom-based learning experience. From September, the Institute for Apprenticeships, soon to be renamed the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, will take on responsibility for T levels through its expanded remit.

Ahead of the roll-out of T levels, the institute has drawn up an occupational “map” to help to shape the way that the new qualifications are governed. On this map, the 15 routes are spilt into 35 career pathways, which each branch out into a number of technical occupation clusters at three levels of seniority. Each cluster then contains a number of specific occupations the career pathway could lead to.

An early version, which is currently subject to a public consultation, shows that a further 11 out of 63 T-level occupation clusters are also listed as apprenticeship-only.

For example, within the craft and design pathway there is the heritage craftsperson cluster, which could lead to a job as a jewellery maker. This cluster is marked as apprenticeship-only, while the textile craftsperson cluster, which could lead to a job such as a leather craftsperson, could still be taught in a classroom.

In total, a third of the occupation clusters might not be delivered in the classroom, when the four apprenticeship-only routes are included.

Jo Maher, principal at Boston College, warns that, with the focus on apprenticeship-only routes and clusters, we should not lose sight of the benefits of college-based classroom learning. “Being in a college environment is absolutely life-changing for some people,” she says. “Classroom learning is fantastic and we need to keep it because it’s a key part of success in the education system.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We are not developing T levels in four routes because the occupations in these areas are better suited to apprenticeships.

“We are transforming technical education through the introduction of new T levels, and will be investing an extra half a billion pounds a year in England’s technical education system once they are up and running.”


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