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15 April 2019

T Levels could take vocational education out of the shadows of academic learning

For too long vocational education has remained in the shadows of academic learning. So when Government announced plans to reform technical education, simplifying the system and give it a much needed boost, manufacturers were filled with glee.

Of course, taking the shine off this announcement slightly was that this would be achieved by introducing a new qualification that would be called a T Level. It’s not that there was an immediate disliking to the name, but for many employers, a new qualification was just another change, in a long list of change that they have witnessed in the vocational education landscape. A sense of deja vous tends to gloss over.

Raising awareness will be key to their success

As time has gone on however, and more and more detail about new T Levels has been released, their attractiveness has grown among manufacturers. However, the concern is that not a lot know about them. Research from Make UK published today found that almost two-thirds of manufacturers were unaware of T Levels and of those who had heard of them 28% said there their knowledge was limited. First challenge then, raise awareness. Raising awareness can be achieved in all sorts of ways and we will continue to work closely with Government to ensure this is achieved.

Simplicity of the landscape yes, but T Levels contain some complex elements

But it does bring us onto another challenge – complexity. The elevator pitch for T Levels is essentially a new Level 3 technical qualification that will be equivalent to 3 A Levels (pretty powerful) lastly for 2 years that is predominantly class room based, with a mandatory work placement.

But there are 5 elements to a T Level: a technical qualification; English, maths and digital, a mandatory industry placement, occupational-specific requirements and finally employability, enrichment and pastoral provision.

That might be easy for employers to get their head around but what’s not so easy is that each part will be graded differently with learners receiving a mixture of pass, merit, distinctions, A* to C and 9-1s. I challenge anyone who can in one minute decipher whether a mixture of grades determines if someone is competent (or as T Level learner would be “threshold component” or not.

A stepping stone to an apprenticeship

In the early days Government was talking about T Level learners moving straight into skilled employment but the message has slightly moved on with the options broader to include apprenticeships. This is exactly what manufacturers want to hear with 44% say they see T levels as moving onto a same level apprenticeship and 43% a higher level apprenticeship.

The big change: a mandatory industry placement

The big ticket item in all of this is of course the mandatory work placement. Without this, you would question why on earth we’d created a new qualification, with many manufacturing employers arguing BTECs and NVQs sort of do the job. But the work placement is important especially when employers tell us they want more young people to have industry experience.

Of course in practice is not going be plain sailing. Although I’m pleased to report that the overwhelming majority of manufacturers won’t be writing off placements immediately, in fact a third say they will offer them in their current form and over one in five would do if they were more flexible.

Delivering placements won’t be easy and government will need to be more flexible

There will be barriers; people constraints, time constraints, legal constraints, financial constraints all cropped up in our survey and discussions with manufacturers. Which is why many of our recommendations in our new report – T Levels: Make or Break for Manufacturers - are based around making the work placement….work! Financial support for employers, allowing the learner to undertake the placement with more than one employer, using training academies as part of it or potentially before to prep young people for the workplace. We could quite quickly overcome some of the hurdles if Government was willing to flex a little on this point.

T Levels have great potential but changes are needed before they are rolled out

Taken with our wider recommendations on raising awareness, simplifying grading and encouraging universities to accept T Level learners, there is every chance we can make this new reform a success. What we really don’t want to happen is have a re-run of the Apprenticeship Levy, which with a combination of rushed reforms and a lack of industry engagement in the start has led to, well, somewhat of the failure.

The domestic skills and education agenda is more important than ever

Its high time Government focuses more of its efforts on domestic policy and the education and skills policy agenda is paramount to the UK economy’s future success. Let’s get this right, first time, and give something to employers and indeed young people that will secure the skills our industry will so desperately need in the future.