Youngsters today are likely to have a 50-year career. T-levels can play a major role in equipping them, if we keep certain strategies in mind, says Stephen Evans
As we wait to find out who will succeed Theresa May, and whether this leads to a changed ministerial team in the Department for Education, one thing that is unlikely to change is the focus on T-levels as a key way to improve skills. How do we make sure they help people in their career aspirations and deliver the skills needs of employers?
The latest report from our Youth Commission, which we set up to consider how to improve education and employment outcomes for young people, shows that young people are likely to have 50-year careers. This means they are likely to change roles a number of times.
Even if they stay in the same occupation, the skills needed in that occupation are likely to change dramatically. Our report, Tomorrow’s World: Future of the Labour Market, considers how the labour market is likely to change during young people’s working lives, and suggests a number of issues we need to consider in order to make T-levels fit for the future.
Firstly, T-levels need to be both specific, and broad: specific enough to deliver the skills to equip students for their chosen occupational role now, and sufficiently broad in content to focus on how young people can adapt to change and build core employability skills in the future.
Secondly, T-levels need to be part of a pathway; it’s no good having the best T-levels in the world if there is insufficient progression into them from below level 3, and also pathways from T-levels into more advanced learning.
T-levels need to be part of a pathway
And we additionally need support for young people who may have done A-levels or other vocational qualifications, but now want to take a different path. We also need to consider how T-levels could or should apply to adults, wanting to update their skills or change careers.
Likewise, place matters too: what about young people living in an area with too few employers to offer an industry placement? We need to find solutions to ensure T-levels deliver across the country.
Third, the qualification needs to be recognised by employers. The government is currently grappling with whether to stop funding other vocational qualifications, such as BTECs, or wait until T-levels are the most popular choice before turning off funding for other qualifications.
Leaving aside that there are some areas that T-levels won’t cover, you don’t make one qualification more credible by stopping the funding of the ones that are in place already. The new qualification on the block will be valued by employers once they are convinced that they have equipped young recruits with the skills they need: given the gradual roll-out of T-levels, this will take time.
The fourth point to consider is the help offered to employers. Our research shows that they want to deliver the industry placement element of T-levels, but they are confused by the array of demands from various government departments.
Are T-level industry placements a bigger priority than apprenticeships, work placements, work experience etc? If everything’s a priority, then in practice, nothing is.
Finally, we need an overall vision for lifelong learning that sets T-levels in context. The previous decade probably saw too many skills strategies, and it has often felt like a “once in a generation” chance to make things right every few years. But now we have gone to the other extreme of having no strategy.
Strategies are not the answer to everything but, combined with local leadership, they can support a partnership approach with employers that allows prioritisation and coordination. As our report notes, we don’t know what all future skills requirements will be, but we do know the core basis and the need to build in flexibility.
T-levels are not a silver bullet and we shouldn’t oversell them; there is also a risk that they could follow previous efforts, such as Diplomas, into the lessons of history. But if we work together, set T-levels into the wider context, and work strategically with employers, there is a real opportunity, this time, for things to be different.