Opinion

Numbers have to rise for T Levels to change things for the better

11 Sep 2021, 5:00



If BTECs continue to be perceived as easier, institutions will always be tempted to teach them, says Ed Reza Schwitzer

Government gets a lot wrong. I worked in the Department for Education for six years, and for every new policy we introduced there was always a group that disagreed (and it was sometimes proved right).

But the skills agenda is an exception. You struggle to find people who disagree that England needs to dramatically improve its technical education. Complaining that we treat vocational professions as second class is a bit like complaining about the weather.

A-levels remain the default route for academically minded children. But apprenticeships are increasingly part of the mainstream – 80 per cent of time spent on the job and 20 per cent on training.

The challenge is whether 16 is too early for young adults to make a binary decision between academia or a vocation. It’s a question even high-performing technical education systems grapple with.

Enter T Levels. These blend the two, keeping learners’ choices open.

T Levels flip the 80/20 proportions, with 80 per cent of time spent in education and training, and 20 per cent on the job.

In principle, great.

But much of the criticism has centred around delivery.

It’s fair to say that the DfE initially shared some of these reservations. Jonathan Slater, the department’s former permanent secretary, took the rare step of asking for a “letter of direction” from Damien Hinds, the then-education secretary (read: “you need to publicly tell me to do this, because I don’t think it’s doable”).

Detractors also point to the difficulty of sourcing work placements that total 45 days.

It’s right that the permanent secretary seek additional clarity when concerned about the effective use of public money.

Shouldn’t we commend politicians for injecting some urgency?

But given decades of heel-dragging on vocational education from the political and Whitehall class (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t educated in FE colleges), shouldn’t we commend politicians for injecting some urgency?

The broader challenge from the sector on delivery is right, but not insurmountable.

The delivery of work placements definetely will be difficult.

You don’t want a scarcity of placements, leading to a poor quality experience, with learners doing the photocopying and coffee rather than developing new skills.

Much of this criticism is informed by research the department itself commissioned. In layman’s terms, it finds that subjects that are easy to find placements, such as hair and beauty, “have a long history of offering young people work experience” and tend to be local.

Conversely, “digital and creative and design routes [were] the most difficult” because they have neither a track record of work experience nor much local availability.

But the fact it’s hard is exactly why it needs to be done.

If T Levels gave us the same work experience opportunities as before, what would be the point?

We need providers to link to industries such as tech and design if we’re to genuinely revolutionise the system and put it on a par with A-levels.

To get there, T Levels have a classic delivery problem – critical mass.

Once employers really understand what T Levels are about, it will be easier for them to offer placements (and post-Covid, location should be less of a barrier).

But to get there, you need enough students doing T Levels. Fortunately, this is in employers’ interests, as they will benefit most from higher quality entrants to their industries.

It’s also true that the blended approach behind T Levels will put greater onus on apprenticeships to deliver the fully vocational route.

Which leads us to the final criticism, around BTECs. I sympathise with educators standing by qualifications they teach.

But for T Levels to change things for the better, they must have the numbers going through them to build that critical mass.

And, whether true or not, if BTECs are perceived as easier, their existence will always tempt institutions to use that route.

If the department gets it right, this could be a big step forward in truly fixing our skills problem.



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  1. Paul Griffin

    I think the only thing I agree with on this is “Government gets a lot wrong. I worked in the Department for Education for six years, and for every new policy we introduced there was always a group that disagreed (and it was sometimes proved right).” – so why does Government and the DfE learn! – This isn’t just disagreement this is a fundamental at odds view. If 86% of anything tells you the direction of travel, pace, implementation, etc is wrong it more than likely is. Even Wolff and the Apprenticeship Review DID NOT recommend this outcome. No matter what paragraphs you read and splice together to get them to say it both reviews DID NOT get us here – what got us here was over zealous and weak officials ploughing on regardless. At least Jonathan Slater was BRAVE enough to call into question the thinking and timescales around all of this which is exactly what officials should do.

    “If BTECs continue to be perceived as easier institutions will always be tempted to teach them” – is also an interesting starting point. The message from DfE is deliberate in its framing of BTECs as easy or not worth the paper they are written on. Then media, and contributors like you, trott out the well crafted lines to take. The Applied General route to give it its proper title has been reformed and honed over years to provide an interlocking system of qualifications that enable students to progress, move into university and critically actually get jobs. Employers DO know what they are, and they have real economic and critically social value. There may well be 12,000 of them but no one in their right mind believes that beyond a core 100 or so core quals at Level 3 there are masses of students leaving with useless quals and no skills.

    Institutions aren’t tempted to do BTECs because they are easier they do them for a myriad of reasons but mainly because its the right thing for their students many of whom are on second, third, fourth chances in life and for whom the reforms will leave them high and dry – unless of course you believe the ‘lines to take’ which is they can do a transition year or they can do an apprenticeship or they can get a job and help out the economy and plug some of the gaps left in the labour market by Brexit instead of staying in education on ‘useless qualification’s.

    The more you look at it this isn’t a reform of skills is it? It’s more about a reform of the labour market isn’t it? Choke off demand of people going to university and get people into jobs earlier earning a (lower) wage, paying taxes and supporting the economic recovery? The cynical view of observers that Colleges do BTECs because they are easy and not because its right, should turn their gaze to the DfE and Government – these reforms are not being done because its right but to make it easier to get low skills low wage jobs filled by people who if it wasn’t for pesky ambition and these useless qualifications would have naturally filled this jobs anyway! Or is that way too cynical?

    “T Levels have a classic delivery problem – critical mass” – another interesting observation which means its baby and bath water time for applied generals just so a qualification with no track record and not a single completion or quite possibly no 45 days of placements completed as yet can take flight. How about good old fashioned evidence, persuasion, time, truly getting employer buy in – not just a large blue chip company within the confines of the M25 saying the skills system is ‘rubbish’ and T levels are the silver bullet but actually all those SMEs and Micro-businesses that have been the backbone of Applied General for years. The classic delivery problem isn’t critical mass the problem is IF critical mass was achieved there wouldn’t be enough placements to cover the number of students therefore people would join a T level with the DfE in full knowledge that they couldn’t achieve the qualification anyway – unless they made it ‘easier’ by cutting back on the requirements or is the plan more likely that if there aren’t enough placements that indicates market demand for jobs and thus regulating student numbers – see above comment about getting people into jobs!

    “If the department gets it right, this could be a big step forward in truly fixing our skills problem” – that’s a mighty big ‘IF’ – If narrow T levels in a few routes is the answer to fixing the skills problem then we really need to worry. Officials point to Germany and elsewhere as exemplars but then go for an England-lite version. Germany has employer compulsion, years of building up both its education and placement infrastructure, over 600 routeways so students leave as ‘masters’ in their technical routeways. What we have pales in comparison and shows a lack of any ambition or learning from what works.