A great deal of attention has rightly been focussed on the long-awaited government response to the T Level consultation issued in November 2017. Much less notice has been taken of another document, also published by DfE in May and snappily titled ‘Post-16 education: highest level of achievement by age 25 (England)’. Yet this latter document contains much that is relevant to a technical education strategy and critically suggests that much of the focus of the current debate may be misdirected.
It’s important to be clear that a technical education strategy should be about the development of technicians, not about boosting the numbers doing STEM subjects. It’s an important distinction, though one that government refuses to make, which only makes implementation more confused. The need for a strategy focussed on technician level occupations however was clearly laid out in the initial Sainsbury review and is backed up by figures from the report on achievement by age 25. To quote that report directly, “Just 4 per cent of the cohort achieved their highest qualification at level 4 or level 5, compared with 26 per cent for level 3 and 27 per cent for level 6”.
An increase in the numbers qualified at levels 4 and 5 could come about in either of two ways; a reduction in the proportion proceeding to level 6 or an increase in the proportion progressing beyond level 3. In terms of social mobility and industrial productivity the latter is clearly preferable but much of the debate seems perversely to imply the former. The over-riding focus on providing an A level equivalent option for 16 and 17-year olds, which provides a secure entry to a bachelor’s degree programme, keeps crowding out discussion of those who don’t achieve a level 3 of any sort by age 18 and, crucially, those who could progress after that age.
The achievement report suggests that there are around 45,000 young people each year who achieve level 2 at age 15 but have not achieved level 3 by age 18. T Levels could be a good opportunity to engage them. A much bigger prize however would be the engagement of the 95,000 or so who gain a level 3 by age 18 and have progressed no further by 25. If a significant proportion of this group could be encouraged to undertake programmes at levels 4 and 5 it would deliver exactly the skills said to be missing in the economy. Indeed if level 4 and 5 skills are the central issue why ignore the 160,000 25 year olds whose highest qualification is at level 3?
The focus on 16 and 17-year olds also distracts from the potential of level 3 T Levels to meet the needs of those aged 18 and over. Some 95,000 young people have a level 2 at age 18 and have no higher achievement at age 25 – perhaps 850,000 in the 18-25 cohort. There are of course yet more who pick up a level 2 between age 18 and 25, some of whom must be capable of progressing further. Not only would a T Level programme support their development but since most are in work, the difficulties of securing work placements would largely disappear.
Government, and it would appear many in the sector, appear to acknowledge the potential of T Levels to support adult learning but seem to see it as a secondary issue, to be addressed when provision for 16 and 17 year olds has been sorted out. This would be a big mistake. Not only are there different issues to address in order to make T Levels fit for an adult market – issues around part time delivery and maintenance support for full time options – but reforming qualifications for 16 and 17 year olds has proved a minefield for successive governments. The last thing technical education for adults needs is to be linked to yet another high profile failure.