The contrast between the stability of academic and vocational qualifications in this country could not be starker. A-levels and GCSEs have existed in some form for almost 70 years, and their purpose and character have remained largely unchanged over their impressive lifespan. Meanwhile, numerous waves of vocational qualifications, training schemes and government programmes have come and gone in that time, costing around £100 billion in the last forty years alone.
Tackling skills shortages, simplifying the vocational offer, improving social mobility, delivering ‘parity of esteem’ and boosting our international competitiveness have invariably been cited by successive Prime Ministers and Education Secretaries as reasons why the previous set of qualifications or programmes has plainly failed and why we need to start all over again. It is into this enduringly unstable landscape that ‘T-levels’ have been put forward.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds has described this new suite of qualifications – the first three of which are scheduled to start delivery in 2020 – as “a once in a lifetime opportunity to reform technical education in this country so we can rival the world’s best performing systems.” However, the two most prominent attempts to introduce a new set of technical qualifications over the last 30 years – first, GNVQs and NVQs in the early 1990’s; and second, Diplomas in 2007 – ultimately failed. Both had considerable political backing and were supported by a sizeable financial investment too. Recent government publications and senior officials involved in T-levels have repeatedly insisted that they have ‘learned from the mistakes of the past’. This new report has investigated whether the introduction of T-levels does indeed show signs of learning from past mistakes.
Who will study T-levels?
The Department for Education (DfE) has been adamant that these new qualifications will be “a high quality, technical alternative to A levels”. Students support this message too as “they want T Levels to be as well respected as A levels”. While these ambitions are reasonable, the reality of the 16-19 education system poses considerable challenges for establishing this new set of qualifications. For instance, it will be up to schools and colleges to respond to learner demand for T-levels, and if this demand does not materialise then providers are under no obligation to provide these courses.
In 2017, only 42,000 learners took an existing technical qualification with no other qualification alongside it. When such a small number of students will be spread over 15 T-level routes in future, covering huge numbers of occupations across thousands of schools and colleges, the issue of viability becomes a concern. One college principal told the Education Select Committee in October 2018 that she would be ‘surprised’ if as much as 10% of her students took a T-level and that “I think it would be less than that to start with”, and this small cohort will be split across the three T-level pathways being trialled in 2020.
Another problem stems from the fact that technical education in England has long-suffered from a ‘lack of prestige’ compared to A-levels. Addressing this will be largely beyond the DfE’s control because the DfE will not centrally impose minimum entry requirement for T-levels. If T-levels fail to attract learners with strong GCSE grades, it will be difficult for them to build a reputation as a prestigious option for young people. The related question of whether T-levels are better suited to schools or colleges is also not one that DfE has openly engaged with. Some of the schools and colleges that have come forward to deliver the first wave of T-levels in 2020 have little or no experience of technical education.
Are T-levels being introduced at the right speed?
The need to provide hundreds of thousands of work placements for T-level students remains the biggest implementation challenge facing the reforms, as only 8% of employers currently offer placements of the duration required for T-levels. Research commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) has also found that many employers are already “reaching a ‘saturation point’” in terms of offering work experience and placements, and among smaller employers “there was a reluctance to divert resources away from employees’ usual work in order to train and supervise a young learner”. This research even found that some employers felt that the nature of their work “made it either inappropriate or legally impossible to support young people”. Crucially, the research identified the likelihood of trade-offs between employers’ willingness to offer T-level placements and their ability to continue with apprenticeships. For many employers to be unable or unwilling to provide work placements for T-level students is both understandable and troubling.
Such is the level of concern around their implementation, the Permanent Secretary at the DfE publicly wrote to Damian Hinds in May 2018 to recommend that the start date for T-levels be deferred to 2021 and requested a written ‘ministerial direction’ should the Education Secretary wish to stick with 2020. A ministerial direction is most frequently used when a department thinks that a planned policy is unfeasible or represents poor value for money. For Damian Hinds to have been asked for a ministerial direction – the first one issued at the DfE for at least 30 years – suggests that civil servants have a very different view from the Education Secretary on the likely success of the T-level reforms given their current trajectory.
Are the ambitions for T-levels appropriate?
The reviw of technical education chaired by Lord Sainsbury (the ‘Sainsbury Review’) in 2016 stated that the main purpose of T-levels is to devlop the technical knowledge and skills required to enter skilled employment. However, T-levels are supposed to allow progression to a higher / degree apprenticeship and studying higher-level technical qualifications as well. Moreover, to support progression from T-levels into university degrees, the Sainbury Review said it was “essential that clearly signposted ‘bridging provision’ exists so that individuals can move between academic and technical education options.” Over two-and-a-half years since the Sainsbury Review was published, it is still not clear whether this bridging proviion will exist when T-levels commence or what form it will take.
The response from universities to T-levels has also been noticeably lukewarm. Imperial College London has even stated that “we do not believe that T levels provide a suitable preparation for students”. Some universities have indicated that they might accept T-levels in principle but would make decisions on a case-by-case basis. Unsurprisingly, most universities have not made up their minds over whether to accept T-levels and blame their reticence on the lack of detail available.
One of the most controversial aspects of the T-level reforms is the Government’s decision to adopt a ‘licensing approach’ in which T-levels will be offered and awarded by a single body or consortium under a fixed-term licence. This was in line with the Sainsbury Review’s concern that our market-based system of qualifications promotes a ‘race to the bottom’ among Awarding Organisations (AOs). The same licensing approach was put forward for reforming GCSEs in 2012, only for the DfE to be forced to abandon their plans in the face of numerous logistical problems as well as considerable opposition from the Education Select Committee and many others. Concerns over licensing are now resurfacing with T-levels, even though the DfE’s own research in 2017 acknowledged that their plans introduced “a risk of system failure”. While a legal challenge in July 2018 against the plans was subsequently dropped after the DfE watered down some of their demands, the licensing model has inevitably increased the likelihood that the predicted ‘system failure’ may come to pass sooner rather than later.
Is there clarity for stakeholders over the purpose of T-levels and their links to other pathways?
It remains unclear how T-levels are supposed to link to apprenticeships. In addition, T-levels appear to ignore all the international best practice on how to link such qualifications to apprenticeships. Analysis by the OECD suggests that the T-level reforms could end up making the system even more ‘fragmented’ and ‘confused’ than it already is, even though this “landscape of confusion [has] by common consent has been one of the weakest points in the English vocational training system”. T-levels have effectively been set up as competitors to apprenticeships, which will leave them struggling for credibility when sat alongside an established training route. The Sainsbury Review wanted there to be “flexibility for individuals to move between the two modes of learning within the technical education option” without any explanation of how this might work.
The process by which students move onto T-levels to begin with has thrown up another set of issues. The Sainsbury Review proposed a ‘transition year’ to help students access T-levels if they were not able to do so immediately after their GCSEs. Nonetheless, as with the bridging provision, there is still no information available on what this transition might involve. It is unclear what the transition year could offer that the existing set of programmes such as Traineeships and Apprenticeships cannot provide. Moreover, the relationship between T-levels and Applied General (AG) qualifications as well as existing vocational qualifications at Levels 1 and 2 or at Levels 4 and 5 remains undefined. This lack of clarity means that students, teachers and employers will be left guessing as to what the overall system might look like even after the first waves of T-levels are introduced.
Do T-levels overlap with other qualifications?
If T-levels are to succeed, a clearly defined purpose combined with clear dividing lines between all the various qualification pathways – A-levels, AGs and technical education – will be crucial. As it stands, the lines separating qualification pathways are too blurred and the scale of duplication across these three main pathways is plainly apparent. Accounting, Art and Design, Business, Computing, Environmental Studies, PE and Science are all found in each of the three pathways, making it almost impossible for young people, parents, teachers and employers to navigate the system. Even if T-levels manage to simplify the technical education route, this will not solve the widespread issues caused by a lack of differentiation in the purpose and characteristics of many other qualifications.
There also appears to have been little recognition of the overlap between T-levels and existing technical qualifications. Not only do the current qualifications called ‘Tech Levels’ – all of which have been approved by the DfE – have a similar purpose and target audience to T-levels, the groupings of Tech Levels are very similar to the proposed occupational routes for T-levels (e.g. ‘Business and Administration’, ‘Hair and Beauty’). Even so, Tech Levels are all set to be scrapped in the coming years as T-levels come online, which seems like a great deal of wasted time and effort.
How much visibility is there of the T-level reforms?
A survey published in 2018 found that 62% of parents were unaware of T-levels. When Skills Minister Anne Milton was asked at an Education Select Committee hearing why a parent would want their child to do a Childcare T-level when there was already a well-respected and industry-backed qualification in place, she responded by saying that she would recommend parents “leave it a year” as “all parents are always wary of new qualifications”. A similar reaction from parents around the country to the possibility of their child being entered for an untried, untested new qualification would be perfectly understandable. A survey of employers in 2018 did not provide any respite for the Government as 60% of respondents had not heard of T-levels either. This is compounded by the competition that T-levels will face from established routes such as A-levels, BTECs and apprenticeships – which are largely trusted by parents and businesses.
One of the critical points arising from the demise of Diplomas was that teachers wanted to receive promotional materials and supporting documentation for the new qualifications at least 15 months before they started teaching them in order to get themselves and their students up to speed. To avoid this scenario from reoccurring, teachers will require the new T-level specifications and supporting materials by the summer of 2019, yet the Government’s current plans show that they won’t even award a contract to begin designing the first T-levels until March 2019. The impact of this misaligned timetable on the number of students wishing to take T-levels in September 2020 could be substantial.
The title of this report – A Qualified Success – is intended to convey the message that T-levels have the potential to make a valuable contribution to our education system, but this will only be realised if T-levels are conceived, designed and delivered in the wider context of building a high-quality and sustainable technical education route. One of the biggest mistakes made by Diplomas and GNVQs was that it was never clear how they were supposed to fit with, and operate alongside, other qualifications and programmes. Too many elements of the T-level reforms (particularly the distance between them and apprenticeships as well as the proposed licensing model) are likely to cut T-levels adrift from the rest of the 16-19 system. The end result of this will be that T-levels are left vulnerable to any changes in educational or political winds.
The recommendations in this report describe a new path for T-levels that allows the Government to maintain the momentum of the reforms while simultaneously constructing a broader technical education system in which T-levels can play a central role. Far from representing a retreat for T-levels, this report proposes that the Government should in fact be much bolder and more ambitious for what they can achieve. That is not to say this will be an easy journey, especially when T-levels have got off to such an inauspicious start. Nonetheless, the Sainsbury Review was right to conclude by saying that “it is time now to focus on actually delivering what has been called for so many times in the past: a system of technical education in England that is the match for any in the world.” We couldn’t agree more.