T levels must be a fresh start, not a false dawn

22nd June 2018 at 00:00
Each generation has just one shot at transforming the technical education landscape, so it is vital that ministers listen to expert advice, argues Tom Bewick

T levels have the potential to completely transform technical education in this country. Of course, we’ve been working on this issue for a very long time.

A favourite story of mine is about Sir Bernhard Samuelson, MP for Banbury, who headed up a Royal Commission on technical instruction in the 1880s. He was the son of a Swiss-German engineer, who was in turn a pioneer of the dual system of apprenticeship.

Germany was already an industrial powerhouse and policymakers in Britain were fretting about the quality of the workforce. We were not only falling behind economically: the quality of technical instruction had been found to be seriously inferior to what was being provided on the continent.

Barrels of laughs

Samuelson had to get his ambitious recommendations passed by the Treasury. It was a classic liberal compromise. There was not much political appetite to provide the scale of state intervention and investment that was needed, so the mandarins came up with a wheeze to help fund the early technical institutes that Samuelson’s commission had said were required to keep pace with international competitors.

While chancellor Otto von Bismarck was funding an expansive network of vocational schools in Germany, some still in existence today, the British Exchequer levied a tax on whisky production to assist local authorities with the same aims.

Unsurprisingly, Britain became the butt of jokes about not being able to organise a quality vocational training system from a booze-up in a brewery. This is why – fast-forward to the 21st century – concerns about T levels should be very carefully acted upon by ministers.

From the failures of the 1944 Education Act (which established the system of grammars, secondary moderns and technical schools) to the 14-19 Diplomas ditched by the coalition government, England has unfortunately become a graveyard of laudable intensions and a series of false dawns for technical education.

The stark reality is that we get only one shot per generation to introduce the scale of transformation required. At least the Treasury on this occasion has set aside a substantial level of investment: up to £500 million a year will be made available eventually. But, given our poor rankings for the standard of technical-level skills – in the lower quartile of 35 Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries – per-pupil funding for vocational education will need to increase significantly over the lifetime of this Parliament and the next.

The extra money will be needed to bring about a cultural shift in the availability of world-class technical training facilities, and proper coordination and incentives for employers to engage with the programme in every part of the country.

If T levels are not to flounder like previous initiatives, then skills minister Anne Milton will need to ensure that her civil servants pay attention to three key issues.

First, with the planned procurement of T levels, it is crucial that the widest possible expertise from the qualifications and assessment community is encouraged to bid and be involved in delivery. The reality is that no single body has all the expertise to deliver a successful T level. We at the Federation of Awarding Bodies have written to the minister about a consortia-led approach to bidding, including some imaginative ideas about how a reformed single licensing regime could help to minimise the risk of a major collapse.

Winning hearts and minds

With GCSEs and A levels, educational institutions already have a choice of exam boards. These academic qualifications are renowned internationally. It seems odd that the government should go down a monopolistic route with T levels, simply because of overzealous rules about intellectual property.

Second, there is the challenge of persuading parents and students to see T levels as a “gold standard” on a par with A levels. Beyond the Westminster bubble, there is next to zero awareness of what these technical education reforms are trying to achieve. The winning of hearts and minds, via a major national marketing and communications campaign, needs to commence immediately.

The decision not to set national minimum entry requirements for T levels may sound sensible in terms of social mobility, but there is a danger that T levels could quickly become stigmatised as a “sink scheme” for the less able. The profile of the first cohort in 2020 will need to include some high-achievers at key stage 4, or else T levels will simply become a qualification for “other people’s children”.

Third, the availability of quality work placements for the duration required is going to be a Herculean challenge. Even in world-class systems of technical education, it is rare for more than a third of firms to get involved. Britain has a poor record of education-business partnerships at the local level. There is a need, therefore, to invest heavily in a network of sub-regional and local brokerage bodies to help match T level students to the available work placement opportunities.

The whisky tax turned out to be a disaster. If we want to avoid the fate of Samuelson and countless others since, ministers really need to listen to the expert advice that they receive.

Tom Bewick is chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies

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