It is rare for a prime minister to spend time talking about post-16 education from the stage at a Conservative party conference and there was a lot for FE to welcome in Rishi Sunak’s speech on Wednesday.
His plan for a new Advanced British Standard involves increased funding for up to 195 more post-16 teaching hours per student, tax-free bonuses to a maximum of £30,000 for lecturers in key subjects, and education becoming “the priority of every spending review from now on”.
On the face of it, the new qualification, reminiscent in ambition (if not detail) of recommendations made by the Tomlinson report in 2004, is a positive shift towards the ever-elusive parity of esteem between academic and technical education.
However, given the dire state of polling for the Conservative party and the fact that the new qualification has an anticipated gestation period of a decade, many commentators suggest that, like Tomlinson’s diploma, it will never see the light of day.
Which leaves me thinking of all those people across the country responsible for teaching, marketing and timetabling T Levels, the new qualification celebrating its own promotional “week” on the day that the prime minister announced plans for its demise.
Our research into public awareness of T Levels, in common with that of the Department for Education, shows that the majority of parents, school teachers and employers have limited awareness of the qualification. In our most recent study, undertaken on behalf of an Institute of Technology among IT firms and departments, half of respondents had never heard of them.
So, for many the first thing that they will read or hear about T Levels will be this week’s coverage of their proposed expiration.
If you are a parent attending a college open day with your child, and a lecturer suggests they should consider this new T Level qualification, what are you now going to think?
If you are an employer who is approached to provide work experience for T Levels, are you more or less likely to say yes based on what the PM has just said about T Levels?
If you are a university that does not accept T Levels as an entry qualification for degrees, are you more or less likely to change your mind?
As someone involved in the launch of the 14-19 diploma, discontinued in 2013, I have first-hand experience of the challenges in rolling out new qualifications. They require sustained positive promotion in the public and political sphere in order to generate sufficient credibility among young people and their families; if you are going to dedicate two years of your life to studying a course, you need to be sure that it will get you where you want to go. Collective confidence is crucial.
The struggle to recruit to T Levels is well documented. As of this week, it just got harder.