'Unless the new grammar schools offer T levels – and they won’t – these qualifications are very likely to fail'

T levels risk being another expensive failure like diplomas – especially if schools continue to be hamstrung by the EBacc, writes former schools minister Jim Knight

Jim Knight

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On Tuesday the BBC broadcasted a wonderful edition of the The Public Philosopher on Radio 4. Professor Michael Sandel engaged an audience in Dagenham on the topical question: "Would life be better if robots did all the work?

Early in the programme he asked the audience, "Could a robot do your job as well as you?" I was pretty shocked that the second person to answer "yes" was a languages teacher called Laura. Happily, she didn't think most teachers could be effectively replaced by robots, but she said that she had successfully learned other languages using apps, and that therefore her particular role was vulnerable.

The good news is that in the UK, according to the authoritative 2013 study by the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford which examined how susceptible jobs were to computerisation, teaching was one of the safest occupations. Interestingly, primary was deemed to be marginally safer than secondary, which was marginally safer than higher education teaching.

The same study suggested that 35 per cent of jobs in the UK will be replaced by technology by 2033 – when a current Year 1 pupil is 21 and entering the labour market. In the US, as many 47 per cent of jobs are under threat.

Over time, new technology is likely to create new jobs, but in the meantime the kind of work most at risk is in transport, production, office work, sales and services.

This is the context for the government's announcement about the "T level" this week.

But will T levels work, and can they keep up with the rapidly changing skills needs of the economy?

It is hard to argue against the simplification of a spaghetti of different qualifications. Distilling those into just 15 routes may also work – but some of the routes are in highly vulnerable sectors like transport and logistics, or business and administrative. It is unclear how often the new Institute for Apprenticeships will review these routes to keep them relevant to the labour market.

But if these qualifications have a parity of esteem with A levels then they will have worked.

'The most able need to be attracted by T levels'

To ask the chancellor of the University of Cambridge to lead a review of technical education was a good start. But despite Lord Sainsbury's best efforts, the simultaneous actions of Theresa May's government make that very unlikely.

The future skills needs of the economy will be strongly focused on higher-level skills. We will need school leavers to be skilled thinkers, and able to apply that thinking practically. The most able will need to be attracted into T levels as much as into A levels, and yet the top 10 per cent now seem destined to be creamed off into academic grammar schools.

Does anyone seriously think that the new grammars will offer T levels? If not, like the diploma programme I worked on for three years as schools minister, they will be another expensive failure.

Meanwhile, teachers will struggle on trying to offer a rounded education, despite the straitjacket of the English Baccalaureate. It is notable that one of the occupations deemed to be safer from the threat of computerisation than teaching was choreography. Set design was as safe as teaching, and music directors and composers were as future-proof as chief executives and education leaders. 

Creativity clearly has a future in work. And if robots do end up doing all the work, with a universal basic income keeping the wolf from the door – as Michael Sandel discussed in Dagenham – then perhaps it is the creative skills that will keep us all sane!

Jim Knight is chief education adviser to TES Global, parent company of TES, and a former Labour schools minister. He tweets as @jimpknight

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Jim Knight

Lord Knight is chief education adviser to TES's parent company TES Global, and a former minister of state for schools 

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