Another ‘T’ level teaser

By: Mick Fletcher

FE Policy Analyst

Wednesday 13 December 2017


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There are many mysteries about the government’s approach to developing ‘T’ levels, the most fundamental of which must be what is meant by the word ‘technical’.  Sometimes it seems to refer to technician level occupations that require sub-degree level qualifications; at other times, it is used interchangeably with STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) and at still others seems to mean vocational.  Greater clarity over such a key concept would certainly aid implementation.

Less fundamental but even more baffling is the decision that there will be no T levels developed for 4 of the technical routes identified by Lord Sainsbury.  Sainsbury ‘expected’ that these routes would be primarily delivered through apprenticeships though neglected to say why.  Government has had at least 3 formal opportunities to shed light on the issue – in the post-16 skills plan, in the T level action plan, and in the latest consultation paper – but has conspicuously failed to offer any explanation on each occasion.

The wording of the consultation document would however appear to be carefully chosen. It simply observes that ‘The Sainsbury Report suggested … ‘(emphasis added) that these four routes should be exceptions. That is strictly correct; tellingly Sainsbury didn’t ‘advocate’, ‘argue for’ or ‘explain’ why.  The most likely explanation for the inclusion of the ‘suggestion’ is that somebody other than Sainsbury asked them to add it in, probably late in the day when they were weary and wanted to go home.  But why?

It’s hard to deduce anything from the 4 routes chosen for special treatment – Protective Services, Sales, Social Care and Transport & Logistics.  They are not the smallest routes so it can’t be the case that it’s not worth the effort of developing a T level for them.  Neither are they the ones where apprenticeships are most strongly established in the public mind – hairdressing, engineering and construction would better meet that test.  It’s not really plausible to argue that there are enough young people following the apprenticeship path already, so a college based route is not needed: even if that were true, the introduction of the apprenticeship levy is certain to change things in unpredictable ways.

Are they perhaps routes dominated by large firms with lots of levy to be spent?  It’s not obvious that they have a higher proportion of big employers than, say, health, manufacturing or education? Are they the most diverse routes, making an overarching T level problematic?  Well, not compared to ‘Creative and Design’ or ‘Health’.  Is there any special reason that makes them more difficult to deliver in college?  It’s hard to argue that finance managers can be trained in college but not marketing managers; or that colleges can deliver childcare but not social care.

It may be a mystery, but does it matter?  It certainly does to young people who are denied a choice of learning setting should they wish to work towards a career in those sectors without a T level option.  More importantly, their chances of a technical education in their chosen field depend entirely on whether employers in their local area choose to recruit an apprentice in that year.  One of the benefits of a college based route is that it can iron out fluctuations in opportunities arising from the business cycle and help address regional gaps in provision.

It matters also to employers that there is a relatively stable supply of qualified applicants in their sectors. If firms are unable to train in a downturn, they are likely to find a skill shortage when business picks up. The college route plays an important counter-cyclical role in relation to skills supply.

Finally, it matters to all concerned if there is a serious drop in capacity in the FE system.  If colleges shed staff and facilities because only T levels and A levels will be funded; and if awarding bodies similarly retrench as qualifications cease to be fundable, it will be difficult to respond should the requisite number of apprenticeships fail to appear.  What is the fall-back position in this perfectly plausible scenario?

DfE appears to be about to take a big risk with the future for young people, colleges and employers.  At the very least they should set out why. 

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