Damian Hinds refuses permanent secretary's request to delay T-levels

The education secretary is sticking to the 2020 start date for T-levels – even though his own permanent secretary has asked to delay it until 2021.

The revelation came in a ministerial direction published this afternoon by the Department for Education.

“As things stand today, it will clearly be very challenging to ensure that the first three T-levels are ready to be taught from 2020 and beyond to a consistently high standard,” wrote Jonathan Slater in a letter to Damian Hinds, dated May 17.

As the DfE’s accounting officer, he is required to “consider the regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility of public spending,” he continued.

“If these were the only considerations, you are aware that I would advise deferring the start date to 2021 in order to mitigate the feasibility and consequential value for money risks.”

But he conceded that Mr Hinds could “quite legitimately decide” to stick to 2020, on the basis of the “high priority that the government attaches to the programme in light of the urgency of the task of improving technical skills”.

“In this case, I need a formal written direction from you,” he continued.

In a response dated May 24, Mr Hinds wrote that he was “able to draw on a wider range of considerations than the guidance to accounting officers, and I am convinced of the case to press ahead”.

None of the advice he has received “has indicated that teaching from 2020 cannot be achieved”.

“The delivery of T-levels in 2020 is focused in a measured way on a small number of TlLevels in a small number of providers,” he added. “I want us now to put all of our collective weight behind delivering these T-levels to begin in 2020.”

T-levels have been designed to increase the prestige of technical qualifications, as match for A-levels.

They were originally intended to come in from 2019, but in July last year the skills minister Anne Milton announced they had been put back to 2020.

A subsequent announcement in October revealed that pathways in just three subject areas would go live in the first year, with the remaining subject routes launched by 2022.

But there have been worrying signs of slippage in this timetable.

There is no sign yet of the government response to the T-level consultation, promised in early May, while providers that bid to deliver the new qualifications in 2020/21 will find out a month later than planned if they’ve been successful.

The consultation ran from November 30 until February 8, and a response was expected from the government in “early May”, according to its own guidance.

Providers that submitted an expression of interest to the Education and Skills Funding Agency to deliver T-levels in 2020/21 were originally told they would be notified on April if they’d been successful, along with confirmation of how many students would qualify for teaching that year.

However, in a response to a parliamentary question the skills minister Anne Milton revealed that providers will now be notified by the end of May.

Sir Gerry Berragan, chief executive of the Institute for Apprenticeships, has voiced concerns about the “worryingly tight” delivery timeline for the first three routes at an Ofqual conference in March.

“The last thing we should do is start the first three on the wrong footing and give them a bad reputation,” he said.

His views are particularly significant as the IfA is set to take over responsibility for administering T-levels later this year.

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, also spoke about the “ambitious” timeframe and the “risks” it carried at the same event.