All the polling suggests that not enough people know about the new T-levels, and those who do value them less than A-levels. This must change, writes Julie Hyde

CACHE recently commissioned a poll of parents and of young people aged 11 to 16, to get a sense of how ready the country is for T-levels and where the pitfalls might lie in the implementation. The results were revealing.

Firstly, there is a startling lack of awareness of the reforms underway – 53 per cent of parents and 56 per cent of young people polled had not even heard of T-levels.

While this could be expected, given that T-levels are still in the early stages of development, it is worrying that the very people who will need to navigate the new post-16 education landscape have no awareness of what’s coming.

The prime minister was right when she noted recently that people still view technical education as “something for other people’s children”

Perhaps more alarming is that 63 per cent of parents with children and 68 per cent of children aged 11 to 16 could not name an existing technical qualification. There is a lot of work to do to make technical education a widely recognised alternative to A-levels.

Parity of esteem remains a long way off: it’s encouraging that three quarters of parents believe technical qualifications are “just as valuable” as A-levels and 82 per cent think technical qualifications can “lead into good future careers”. In spite of this, twice as many parents would advise their children to pick A-Levels (53 per cent) rather than technical qualifications (26 per cent).

The prime minister was right when she noted recently that people still view technical education as “something for other people’s children”.

The government has the right idea: creating robust technical qualifications respected by employers that give learners strong prospects. But simply introducing new qualifications is not enough to deliver a real change in how technical education is viewed.

The government should acknowledge this challenge and set out in its consultation response how it plans to actively change perceptions and promote the benefits of technical education.

We need to find ways to educate parents and children about their post-16 choices so they can make informed decisions, and we need to start now.

The Baker Clause was designed to address this by ensuring that young people hear about all their options in school, but it has no teeth. The skills minister did recently call on FE providers to report schools which fail to cooperate, but this risks feeding the adversarial dynamic that created the problem in the first place.

We need a more direct approach. During the implementation period for T-levels, the government should actively work with the FE sector to harness our expertise and develop an impactful marketing and information campaign about the reforms, targeting parents and young people. We know what attracts people to our sector and what they want from a qualification, and we can help.

It is also crucial that people from the sector have a visible presence in the policymaking landscape.

We need politicians and other high-profile people with experience of technical education front and centre, who can serve as role models and make a strong case for the benefits. The recent decision not to appoint anyone from FE to the Office for Students’ board was particularly telling. If the government does not lead by example, then how will parity of esteem ever become a reality?

Ultimately, the best thing to ensure that technical education becomes the norm would be a period of stability. By my calculation, the sector has seen more than 20 different major reforms since 1980 – which explains why the public are struggling to keep up and can’t name a technical qualification.

That’s not to say that the academic sector has not faced its fair share of changes – it has – but while the content and assessment of qualifications may have changed, the core principles and components of the academic route have remained broadly similar and easy to follow.

Giving these reforms adequate time to take root is vitally important, as creating parity of esteem requires a significant generational shift in attitudes that clearly can’t be achieved overnight.

Julie Hyde is director of CACHE

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