‘We don’t want to sink T levels, we want to make them a success’

10th August 2018 at 00:00
Days after the Federation of Awarding Bodies commenced legal action that put the introduction of T levels in jeopardy, the trade association applied the brakes. Chief executive Tom Bewick tells George Ryan the reasons for the change of heart – and why he ‘lives and breathes’ FE

The stage, it appeared, was set for a prolonged courtroom drama. The somewhat unlikely subject was the biggest reform of post-16 education in 70 years; specifically, the introduction of T levels, the government’s proposed flagship technical qualifications that are intended to be equal in status to A levels.

The tale’s protagonist was Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB). On 17 July, the trade association for professional and technical awarding organisations served legal papers on the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships, highlighting a number of legal issues over the tendering process by which a single awarding body would be chosen to offer each T level.

The “rushed nature of these reforms”, the FAB said, could “put at risk the life chances and job prospects” of the 30,000 learners expected to take the first wave of qualifications. The case, it warned, could end in a judicial review in the High Court.

The DfE’s response was similarly robust: education secretary Damian Hinds said he was “deeply disappointed” about the action, which he warned could “disrupt this vital work”.

But as quickly as the tension had mounted, a resolution seemed to appear from nowhere. Last Thursday, the FAB confirmed it would not be pursuing the judicial review. While insisting that the legal grounds for review were “strong”, it had decided that a court case was not the “optimal way of settling our key concerns with government”; rather, it hoped that meeting officials behind closed doors would “reset the relationship”.

Back on track

When asked about the U-turn, Bewick is philosophical. He insists that he was led by the concerns of the awarding organisations he represents: “We don’t want to sink T levels; we want to make them a success.”

Informal discussions between the DfE and the FAB board convinced the latter that “a more productive path lies ahead to deal with the challenges” without the threat of legal action, he explains.

But Bewick says significant issues remain around the single-provider model, the timescale for implementation and consortia bids. “The first [T level] cohort cannot be below par,” he states. “Finding your way back from that potential challenging start would be very, very difficult indeed. I want to see a genuinely world-class technical education route and we have got to continue along that track.”

Bewick’s own life experiences have given him a strong belief in the transformative power of learning. “I’m someone who believes in education, not least because I failed at school,” he says. “I left with just one O level in English. I was in foster care in the run-up to leaving school with no qualifications – pretty much all my life from the age of 6.

“I bring to this role not just a lot of professional expertise and experience, but also a huge amount of personal experience, and also passion for the transformative effect that qualifications can have on a person, a household and a community’s life chances…

“It means a lot to me. [When I was looked after] you came out of care when you were 18,” he continues. “So you could fall through the gaps very, very quickly. I was fortunate, I had a job at Asda pushing trollies. I was at night school doing GCSEs and I had a good circle of friends around me, so I didn’t really go off the rails.”

And it was getting good GCSE grades at night school that led to a dramatic upturn in Bewick’s fortunes. After completing an undergraduate degree at the University of Bath, he went on to gain an MSc on his path to becoming an expert in labour markets and social policy.

This led to roles, firstly as an education and employment adviser to the Labour Party, and then as adviser to ministers and senior civil servants on industrial and adult skills training. Bewick headed the team that created sector skills councils. “Imagine, just after the 1997 election, me sitting in the weekly meeting of special advisers chaired by David Blunkett and other ministers,” he recalls. “As a kid who left school with nothing, that felt like quite an achievement. I am proud of that.”

After leaving governmental roles, Bewick founded the Creative and Cultural Skills sector skills council with former BBC director general Lord Hall. Following further leadership roles at other skills organisations, Bewick joined a team advising President Barack Obama’s Department of Labor on the expansion of apprenticeships in the US. He set up the Transatlantic Apprenticeship Exchange Forum and is also the co-founder of the US-based firm, Franklin Apprenticeships. He has worked across 10 countries, advising governments from Washington to Kabul.

Life experience

Unusually for the head of a major representative body in the FE sector, Bewick is also politically active. He has been a Labour councillor on Brighton and Hove City Council since 2015, and served as the lead member for education for two years. He plans to step down next year to focus on his responsibilities at the FAB, which he joined in March. In his role as councillor, Bewick is setting up a care leavers’ trust to offer youngsters access to the what he describes as the equivalent of a “bank of mum and dad”.

The frequent meetings at his former workplace at Sanctuary Buildings, home to the DfE, has served as a reminder to Bewick of his experiences as an adviser two decades ago.

“When I did get to the dizzying heights of working on the seventh floor of Sanctuary Buildings, interacting with senior civil servants and ministers every single day, the backgrounds of the people there were essentially privileged,” he says. “They knew the grammar school system because a lot of them had come through the grammar system. They knew the university system because they’d all come through the university system. What they didn’t know very much about was apprenticeships, FE even. Very few had come from a college route.”

Setting FE on the right course, then, is partly about addressing this imbalance: “I think a lot of this, as well, is about ensuring you have got more voices, actually, like mine at a senior level. Although I am outside of government now, I am doing a serious, independent, representative role. It’s coming from a place of someone who doesn’t just say ‘FE is a good thing’. I have actually lived and breathed it.”

@GeorgeMRyan

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