T-levels ‘uniquely narrow’ compared to technical courses in high performing countries, claims think tank

A review into the “uniquely narrow and short” technical courses in England has been called for ahead of the introduction of T-levels this September.

The Education Policy Institute think tank (EPI) made the recommendation in an international comparison of technical education funding systems, published today, which said this country’s 16 to 19 curriculum “remains an outlier for its narrow breadth, both for academic and technical pathways”.

This approach “may be depriving students of valuable skills”, it added.  

While welcoming T-levels’ increased teaching hours, the “substantial” 315-hour industry placement and how they “will bring England closer to technical provision in high performing countries”, the report also says the curriculum “looks narrower” than similar qualifications in other countries.

The new flagship courses will not address the differences in curricular breadth between England and countries like Norway and Germany beyond securing basic levels of literacy and numeracy, the report says.

As T-levels will last for half as long as technical qualifications in other countries, this “probably stands in the way” of broadening the curriculum.

EPI’s research was funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which is working on preparations for T-levels and is co-running professional development for the qualifications with the Education and Training Foundation.

“The views expressed in this report are those of the authors, and do not reflect those of the foundation,” the report stresses.

The government, the report proposes, ought to commission an independent review to consider if the breadth of 16 to 19 courses is properly providing the basic and technical skills “young people need for the labour market and for progression to further study”.

If this means providers have to increase provision, the government “must” match this with appropriate funding rates. The report found funding support for students fell by 71 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

The joint general secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney said the government “must learn from this challenging report” and 16 to 19 students need “sustainable funding” and “real support” for living, learning and travelling costs.

The Association of School and College Leaders’ post-16 and colleges’ specialist Kevin Gilmartin urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to address the “desperate need” for additional government funding for the sector in the Budget on March 11.

The countries the EPI compared England against were found to offer a broader curriculum, for example technical students in Norway spend more of classroom time studying subjects like English, maths, PE, natural sciences, and social sciences than their vocational specialisation. Technical students in Austria take courses on entrepreneurship, digital skills, communication skills and, in many cases, up to three foreign languages.

In Germany’s dual-system, students attend a vocational school up to two days a week and apart from theoretical and practical knowledge for their apprenticeship, they also take general subjects like economics and social sciences.

Germany’s system was thrown into the spotlight after education secretary Gavin Williamson pledged the UK to overtaking Germany in technical education opportunities by 2029.

However, the report did note the breadth of curriculum in other countries varies dependent on factors like qualification level and whether it is a classroom-based programme or apprenticeship training.

David Robinson, report author and director of post-16 and skills at the EPI, said: “If it wishes to draw level with countries like Germany, the government must give further consideration to properly funding technical education, in order to sustain quality.

“We must also ask serious questions about the structure of our upper secondary programmes, which are uniquely narrow and short by international standards. The breadth of the curriculum and length of technical courses should be reviewed.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The secretary of state has been clear that boosting further education is at the heart of his vision for a world class education system.

“We are investing significantly to level up skills and opportunity across the country. In addition to our £3 billion National Skills fund, we have announced a £400m increase to 16 to 19 funding for 2020-2021, creating longer, higher-quality technical apprenticeships.

“Alongside this, our traineeship programme is a great way for young people to develop the skills and confidence they need to progress on to employment, or a high quality apprenticeship.”