On the eve of the controversial T-level tender - when, how and why?

On the eve of the launch of the government’s first ever tender for a single awarding organisation for a qualification, FE Week takes a look at the twists and turns of the tangled T-levels procurement process to date.

The controversial full tender process to find awarding organisations to offer the first T-levels qualifications is due to launch on Monday.

It follows an open early engagement notice, published by the Department for Education in late May, which closes on Sunday (September 2).

According to that notice, the purpose of the procurement will be to “select and appoint an AO to be responsible for developing and delivering each of the wave one T-levels, under an exclusive licensing approach”.

There are expected to be three separate tenders launched – one for each of the first pathways to be delivered from 2020, in digital (digital production, design and development); childcare and education; and construction (design, surveying and planning).

The development of these new qualifications has so far proved to be highly contentious.

The Sainsbury report, published in July 2016, which paved the way for the introduction of T-levels, recommended that each qualification should be offered by a single AO or consortium.

This is a very different approach from that taken for A-levels and other level three courses, in which multiple awarding organisations offer the same qualification.

The DfE said at the time of the Sainsbury report that it intended to implement its recommendations in full – a line it has stuck to, despite concerns over the single awarding body approach.

These were first raised in July last year. Research carried out by Frontier Economics on behalf of the DfE concluded that limiting access to a single AO risked “system failure” both in the short and long-term.

It warned that an alternative AO may be unable to step in if the single AO offering the qualification failed.

And in February the exams regulator Ofqual said it had “advised on the risks related to the single provider model” in its response to the government’s consultation on T-levels.

However, writing exclusively for FE Week in July, skills minister Anne Milton defended the approach, insisting it was essential to “protect the standard of T-levels”.

“By selecting one AO to work on each T-level, it means they will have been successful against other competitors in demonstrating their vision to us, making it a shared vision to give our T-levels the greatest chance of success,” she wrote.

Further trouble started brewing after the DfE published its early engagement notice in May.

AOs were left fuming over the draft commercial terms they would be expected to sign up to, unveiled at a series of DfE market engagement events in June.

The Federation of Awarding Bodies called in the lawyers on behalf of its members, and in July issued the DfE with a letter outlining its plans to launch a judicial review over the T-level implementation plans.

But just weeks later it announced it had dropped its legal challenge – in part because some of the rules that had provoked AOs’ ire at the DfE’s events in June had been watered down by the time the department published its draft invitation to tender in July.

At the same time, Ofqual’s four-week consultation on how it should frame its rules for policing T-levels, launched July 10, prompted an angry response from Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier.

She hit out at the “ridiculous” timescale, which was half that of a usual consultation.

The exams regulator itself acknowledged that the timing was tight, but blamed it on the DfE’s schedule for the introduction of the new qualifications.

That timetable, which will see the first T-levels being taught from 2020, has also proved controversial.

Education secretary Damian Hinds took the highly unusual step of issuing a ministerial direction in May to overrule his permanent secretary Jonathan Slater’s request to delay the start date to 2021.

During a PAC hearing in June Mr Slater admitted to having concerns about a lack of “contingency” in the government’s plans, but just days later his boss told an education select committee hearing that T-levels were being introduced at a “good pace”.

In July, Ms Milton left MPs on the latter committee “staggered” after admitting she wouldn’t encourage her own children to study the first T-levels.

The DfE is currently responsible for overseeing the development of the first wave of T-levels.

The Institute for Apprenticeships is set to take over responsibility for the second wave, but no date has yet been set for when this will happen.