A beginner’s guide to the T level reforms

Since the landmark 2011 Wolf review of vocational education and training, and the subsequent report of the independent panel on technical education chaired by Lord Sainsbury in 2016, some important steps have been taken to improve the position of skills training in the UK. These have included removing thousands of qualifications from government-funded registers and increasing investment into the delivery of apprenticeships.

However, the reform endeavour associated with vocational and technical provision remains far from complete. There is still a sense that the system as currently designed, serves neither students nor the labour market.

Consistent with the central recommendation laid out by the Sainsbury report and accepted in the government’s subsequent Post-16 Skills Plan, the government is accelerating efforts to introduce T level qualifications and to establish two distinct pathways for students at the age of 16, with either an academic or a technical pathway to pursue. Hope and scepticism, in equal measure, surrounds these proposed changes to technical education.

At a crossroads

The technical route will trigger the pursuit of two-year, level 3 college programmes, known as T level qualifications. These qualifications will sit alongside apprenticeships as a pathway but differ in that apprentices train for a single occupation, T level students will undertake a broader range of skills and knowledge that is intended to help them access a range of occupations within a particular sector or field.

T level programmes will steer students to pursue 15 technical routes based around occupations with shared training requirements. For example, the route of construction leads to the pathways of design, planning and surveying, onsite construction and building services engineering.

Each of these programmes will, on average, consist of 1800 hours studied full-time over two years. They will comprise the technical qualification itself, an industry placement with an employer, requirements in maths, English, and digital capabilities, and any further employability, pastoral and accreditation requirements.

Students will be graded for each core component within the qualification, through a combination of external examination and employer-set projects. These technical routes have been identified by the Institute of Apprenticeships as industries of the future. Given the plethora of qualifications that existed up until recently, a simplified set of courses is seen as a welcome move.  

There are concerns that students may be forced to make a binary choice between the academic route and the technical route, especially when the perception is that technical qualifications are delivered by underfunded providers and for jobs with relatively poorer salary returns. Another issue is that of parity of esteem – the perception that technical qualifications – and the students who choose them – are inferior to academic qualifications gained through a university, and that students only pursue technical qualifications as a plan B.

The ambition is that the introduction of the T level qualifications restores a sense of aspiration associated with undertaking technical education, in attracting bright and committed students and leading to further study, a higher-level apprenticeship or meaningful employment options.

The risk, as with every attempt to introduce a new technical qualification is that the two-tier hierarchical system remains unchanged in the imaginations of students, parents and education providers. Much may depend on the enthusiasm with which universities accept T levels as entry pathways into their technically-focused degree-level programmes.

The intention is that there should be “appropriate bridging courses” to facilitate movement between the two systems of learning and avoid students getting stuck on one path. It remains unclear what these appropriate bridging courses look like, and whether they will indeed promote a permeability of movement between the academic and technical routes. There is, indeed, a risk that they will never materialise.

Does it all add up?

Providers of T level programmes will adapt the existing funding arrangements for vocational education, which follow per student per hour rather than per qualification. However, the government has stated that an additional £500 million a year will be invested once the T level programmes are at full scale.

Given the years of budget cuts experienced by further education colleges in the UK, intensified since 2010-11 where there has been a funding shortfall of some 8% in real terms, the difference that this amount can make to match the government’s ambitions for a world class technical education system may be somewhat misguided. Improving the capacity of providers and the overarching regulation arrangements governing technical education are key goals identified in the Sainsbury review and indeed in the government’s post-16 plan.

The clock is ticking

At present, the major risk associated with the implementation of the T levels is whether they will see the light of day in the near future. The first set of qualifications were originally set to be approved by February of this year, but this has been delayed to September 2020. A further seven are to be available from September 2020, and the government’s current aim is for all T levels to be introduced by September 2023.

While getting the design right for these programs is important, clarifying the arrangements for providers and providing support for students who are having to navigate the changing technical education landscape is of even greater priority. Adding to concerns with this ever-shifting timeline have also been frustrations expressed by awarding related to the lack of consultation on the provider model. However, it would appear that these concerns have somewhat simmered with the guidance released recently which has set out the criteria for providers who wish to deliver T level programmes.

Few would disagree with the notion that technical education needs continuing reform and that it is a core component of the post-school ecosystem. The question remains, are T levels in their current design and proposed implementation best positioned to further the skills and employability aspirations of the UK?

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