Reviewing post-16 qualifications is a start – but it’s not enough

Meeting engineering's skills gap will require a lot more than tinkering with the courses on offer

Meeting engineering's skills gap will require a lot more than tinkering with the courses on offer

31 May 2024, 5:00

Introduced in 2020, T Levels are vocational qualifications aimed at 16- to 19-year-olds, which provide hands-on experience via industry placements alongside class-based learning for topics such as agriculture, manufacturing and engineering.

Badged with benefits for both students and employers, such as industry insight, real-life learning, early access to a talent pipeline, improved innovation and increased productivity, you would think – and hope – that they’d be in high demand. However, figures have shown uptake and completion of courses has been slow.

Last week saw the government announce a post-16 qualification review update and the introduction of new technical qualifications, including a new engineering qualification – but is it enough?

Parent choice

Technical education is key to ensuring students get exposure to the right skills and qualifications in preparation for them joining the workforce. It’s also an important step in raising awareness that university is not necessarily the best route for all students aspiring to become engineers.

Hands-on vocational courses such as apprenticeships, degree apprenticeships as well as post GCSE T Levels are just as strong qualifications when entering the engineering workforce.

We need to make sure they receive the same respect and prestige as academic routes and are presented as a worthwhile option leading to good jobs when young people make crucial decisions about their futures.

The vocational route holds no lesser value than other traditional academic routes and should be considered as equal. We need schools, parents and businesses to collectively push this message to encourage uptake.

Employer demand

While progress on vocational learning has been made, our latest International Green Skills Survey (2023) revealed a different story.

Near two-thirds (63 per cent) of engineering employers stated that the UK education system does not prepare graduates well for industry – falling substantially behind other nations.

To combat this, nearly half of UK employers suggest more industry placement years and over one-third think more industry-targeted projects will better prepare graduates.

Therefore, more needs to be done to address the current issues in the T Level curriculum and bridge the gap between industry and providers.

More work is also needed to ensure T Level education across the UK is equitable regardless of location. As raised in Ofsted’s thematic review last July, they have varied levels of success across the UK and the quality of industry placements varies considerably across providers.

This is partly due to the location of providers and a lack of overall strategy to engage industry with the skills and education agenda. As referenced by the education committee’s report The future of post-16 qualification “regional variations in economic activity are limiting factors in students’ access to T Level courses and placements, as many industries, such as engineering or media and creative arts, are concentrated in larger cities”.

This remains a real issue and has not been addressed in this latest announcement. It risks undermining the government’s levelling up agenda. Again, this links back to raising the profile of T Levels and the benefits that they can have on regional skill demands in local areas.

Too little too late

The current government skills education starts too late and more needs to be done to introduce skills and particularly engineering education at an earlier stage.

The IET’s Engineering Kids’ Futures report calls for much-needed curriculum reform and to introduce engineering at primary level. Teaching children vital skills in engineering from an early age allows students to understand the real-world applications of subjects like science, maths, and design & technology.

This valuable context is often missing in the current curriculum which is content-heavy and allows very little time for in-depth learning or investigation into topics.

We know more needs to be done to empower more young people to think about what a possible career in engineering and technology could be. Without this there will be no way to future-proof the next generation of engineers and technologists and the UK’s skills gap will continue.

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