Q&A with Carmel Grant from IfATE

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) Deputy Director for Technical Education, Carmel Grant, talks to Idha Valeur about T Levels, the curriculum and benefits.

Can you give me a brief overview of your career and what your job entails?

I joined IfATE in June 2018 and am leading the delivery of technical qualifications as part of the introduction of Technical Levels (T Levels) from 2020. T Levels are the government’s new national qualifications for students aged 16–19 and involve two-year study programmes, equivalent to three A Levels, across 11 industry sectors including engineering, construction, health, science, law and agriculture.

Following an initial career in banking, I joined the Civil Service and have worked in various policy, programme, project and financial roles across the Ministry of Defence. Prior to IfATE, I worked at the British Army headquarters, with responsibility for delivering strategic change and reform programmes for the army’s transformation agenda.

Why have T Levels been initiated?

In 2016, a report was published urging the government to reform technical education. Headed up by Lord Sainsbury, it highlighted the key industries where there were skills gaps and suggested steps which could be taken to both bridge these gaps and improve the quality of technical education in this country. The government accepted the report’s proposals in full, one of which was the implementation of T Levels. As a result, T Levels have been initiated to provide students with an exciting, high-quality choice after their GCSEs.

Why are they important?

They’re important for three reasons. Firstly, they will provide students with a new, exciting and rigorous option to pursue after they finish school. Secondly, they will equip students with knowledge, skills and behaviours which are valued by employers and industry experts alike. Thirdly, they will help to bridge the gap between academic and technical education, thereby highlighting the importance of these two vital routes. T Levels are important because they provide an option which students will want and which employers will need.

How is the curriculum geared towards industry needs?

All T Level content has been constructed both by and for employers. T Level panels, which consist of industry experts, are formed by IfATE and they create the outline content. This forms the bedrock of the technical qualification and outlines the skills and knowledge students need to acquire in order to thrive in a particular industry. When these groups have drafted the outline content, it is then put out for public consultation. This process allows businesses, individuals and interested bodies the chance to offer their own insight.

What benefits will a technical education give over alternatives?

Apprenticeships and T Levels are built upon the same high-quality standards. This provides a consistent and complementary set of paths into industry. While apprenticeships are for individuals who know precisely what they want to do, T Levels allow for more flexibility and will give students a broad understanding of an individual industry, including the skills, knowledge and behaviours which underpin them. It will also allow students to specialise during their two years of study. This theoretical knowledge is coupled with practical experience, as each T Level will also include an industry placement. This will run for a minimum of 315 hours and will give students invaluable practical insights.

How would students go about starting their T Level education?

At present, T Levels have been designed for 16-19 year olds. Therefore, they are a progression from GCSEs and will sit alongside apprenticeships and A Levels. The Department for Education (DfE) and the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) are working with providers across the country to ensure these colleges and schools are ready to deliver T Levels. They are creating a set of leaflets, guidelines and more which will inform students, employers, parents and providers what T Levels are and how they work. A big part of this will also be the media campaign which DfE will be launching from September. This campaign will highlight why T Levels are an aspirational choice for students and will showcase the breadth of choices available to young people.

What is IfATE’s role in implementing T Levels?

The Institute is primarily responsible for the technical qualification. This is the main, classroom-based element of the T Level, and it will provide students with the theoretical knowledge, skills and behaviours, which underpin their chosen industry. To do this, we convene the T Level panels and work with them to craft the outline content. It is put out for public consultation, before finally being signed off by IfATE and the employer-led route panel. Once finalised, we put this content out for tender. This process allows awarding organisations (AO) to bid for the right to develop the content into a working syllabus. After we have awarded contracts, we work with the AOs while they flesh out the outline content into a fully formed qualification.

What would completing T Levels mean for a student’s career?

T Levels allow students to keep their options open. After completing their qualification, they will have the ability to either move onto a higher-level apprenticeship, university or into the world of work. UCAS has confirmed that T Level students will receive UCAS points for their qualification, meaning that higher education will still be very much open to students.

How does the process of rolling out the courses work?

The first three T Levels will be rolled out across 50 different colleges and schools from September 2020. This will then expand to 10 T Levels from September 2021, and we intend that all 25 T Levels will be rolled out nationwide by September 2023. As availability grows, so will the number of education providers who are able to support them. ESFA will be releasing the names of the colleges and schools for September 2021 soon.

What is your opinion on criticism regarding the lack of metrics in place to measure success?

The phased rollout of T Levels will allow us to learn key lessons along the way. We have selected 50 of the best providers to deliver T Levels in September 2020, meaning we will be able to troubleshoot any potential issues quickly and effectively. Success may look different from one T Level to another. Some may lend themselves as a route into work straight away, whereas others may be the perfect stepping stone onto higher education or a degree-level apprenticeship. This is the biggest reform to education since A Levels were introduced more than 65 years ago, so it’s natural that they’re going to grow and evolve as we progress.

Could a separate course for technical degrees put young people into boxes earlier than necessary?

I think you can look at this in two different ways. One, T Levels are a rigorous option in their own right. They are the equivalent of three A Levels and will stretch students by prompting them to really get under the skin of an industry. What’s more, the broad scope of T Levels intentionally doesn’t box young people in. The digital world, for instance, is ever evolving, but a T Level in this space would give students a raft of invaluable and transferable skills.

Secondly, and more broadly, T Levels will help to close the supposed gap between academic and technical education. We’ve long had a bias towards the former and that’s why we’re intent on making T Levels a gold standard, respected route for students to take. Gaining this parity of esteem will take some time, but we’re trying to foster a cultural change which will make the two options equally respected. It’s not about being book smart or not, it’s about valuing academic and technical skills equally.