If we really want to deliver diversity, we need a Public Services T Level

The transition to T levels can’t be allowed to leave gaps in place of popular courses fulfilling an important social role, writes Gemma Simmons-Blench

The transition to T levels can’t be allowed to leave gaps in place of popular courses fulfilling an important social role, writes Gemma Simmons-Blench

23 May 2023, 5:00

The government’s reasons for wanting to de-fund dozens of technical qualifications seem reasonable. As the DfE says, the aim is to ‘simplify the system for young people’ and create a ‘ladder up for all’.

An impressive range of T Levels is now available which offer an attractive option for those seeking to mix their studies with industry placements. But while curriculum reforms are welcome, there are some worrying gaps in replacements for all of the NCFE, BTEC and other applied general courses which are set to be phased out by 2025.

This is one of a number of concerns about the proposals that demand urgent action. The challenge is to introduce these reforms in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage any students or cause successful existing pathways into work to disappear.

In this regard, the DfE’s claim that only unpopular or failing applied general courses, or those that overlap with T Levels will be defunded deserves scrutiny.

Uniformed public services courses that are currently offered by FE colleges are a prime example. These help students, often with very few qualifications, to develop the skills they need to progress and pursue a career in the police, fire service, army, prison service or ambulance service. These are all crucial sectors for our society, and all are facing challenges in terms of recruiting or retaining staff and ensuring their workforces are sufficiently diverse.

Undermining social mobility

These courses, running from Level 1 to 3, provide a unique pathway for young people for whom a direct route into A Levels (or indeed T Levels with their five-GCSE entry requirement) is simply not available.

And there is strong demand for them. At Leeds City College, some 350 16- to 18-year-old students want to join a uniformed service. In addition to these, 40 adults have also come to us to acquire the 80 UCAS points they need to acquire through a Level 3 qualification to join the police through Leeds Trinity University’s Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship, which is funded by the West Yorkshire Police apprenticeship levy.

But the government’s planned reforms provide no direct alternative qualification for learners who want to work in the uniformed services. Instead, the DfE has made arrangements for colleges to apply for funding to run a ‘small Alternative Academic Qualification (AAQ)’ in their place from 2026.

The expectation will be for these small AAQs to be studied in combination with two A levels, which will make this new pathway much less attractive (and in some cases inaccessible) to many. This change would restrict choice and, nationally, lead to a significant reduction in the number of people attempting to join our uniformed services.

That would represent a disastrous blow for social mobility.

Delivering a diverse workforce

Our uniformed services still have a long way to go to ensure their workforces reflect our society. The government’s police workforce report for England and Wales, for example, shows that as of March 2022, white officers made up nearly 92 per cent of personnel.

In West Yorkshire, last year’s racial diversity report showed that just 7.4 per cent of the force’s officers were from a ethnic minority backgrounds. Rightly, the region’s deputy mayor for policing and crime, Alison Lowe described this as ‘woeful’.

Our courses are helping to address these shortcomings. Some 20 per cent of our Level 3 public services students in Leeds last year identified as BAME.

The gender split among students is also helping to address the historical imbalance which the police still suffers from. In England and Wales, the workforce is 66.5 per cent male. At Leeds City College, our public services students last year were 60 per cent female.

In addition, 40 per cent of Leeds City College’ public service students in 2022 came from some of the country’s most deprived postcode areas.

FE providers are doing the work to create the diverse workforce our public services are crying out for – through courses that could soon disappear. Gillian Keegan must ensure that a public services T Level is created to continue meeting skills needs in these crucial sectors.

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