T Levels – the positives and potential pitfalls

Materials World magazine
,
1 Jul 2019

The education sector is giving technical skills another try by launching T Levels, but how will they work? Idha Valeur talks to the industry about the positives, negatives and actions required to ensure T Levels are a success.

The implementation of T Levels is fast approaching. Panels, education providers and government are all preparing for the first courses to start from September 2020.

In the guidance letter published online from the Department of Education (DfE) – last updated 19 May – it states that ‘T Levels will provide the knowledge and experience needed to open the door into skilled employment, further study or a higher apprenticeship’.

This statement seems to sum up the general ambition and expectation for T Levels – building a skilled and diverse pool of workers. But several industry bodies are warning of potential pitfalls, and what measures the government should take to address these.

What are T Levels?

T Levels are two-year courses in technical industries including agriculture, science, onsite construction, manufacturing and process, building services engineering. They will become one of the main choices after GCSEs, together with apprenticeships and A Levels, and will be equivalent to three A Levels.

‘Right from the word go, we’ve worked closely with employers to design T Levels so the courses will provide the industry with the skilled workforce they need for the future,’ Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, Anne Milton, told Materials World.

‘A unique aspect of T Levels will be the completion of a high-quality industry placement which sets the new qualifications apart from any past reforms to technical and vocational education. All of this means that employers can be confident that any student who has completed a T Level will have the confidence and the skills they need for the job in hand,’ she added. ‘It is a hugely exciting time and I’m really looking forward to the first wave of T Level students taking the first steps to a really bright future in September 2020.’

Students choosing a T Level path can expect a mixed education scenario where their study time will be split between normal classroom and on-the-job learning, as well as the required industry placement mentioned by Milton, lasting a minimum of 315 hours.

To develop and create the curriculum for each T Level, employers and providers are collaborating to define the skills and requirements through consultation panels with the support from the DfE and the Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education (IfATE).

‘I have been involved in the Engineering Design and Development T Level panel for some 18 months now and this is one of three engineering pathways, the other two being Manufacturing and Process, and Maintenance, Installation and Repair,’ Aston University Royal Academy of Engineering Visiting Professor of Inclusive Engineering, Dawn Bonfield, told Materials World.

‘The T Levels are intended to significantly reduce the complexity of vocational qualifications at Level 3, to offer a much simpler choice to students, and to directly match students to the identified occupations where skills are required.

‘The T Level panels are composed of employers and stakeholders representing the industries that they serve, and their role is to set the qualification content – in terms of knowledge, skills and behaviours – based on the Apprenticeship Standards at Level 3,’ she said.

There is no doubt that the prospect and presumed benefits of implementing T Levels are numerous. City & Guilds Director of Strategic Partnerships, Patrick Craven, believes effective implementation of T Levels will help raise the esteem of a technical educational pathway, which he said ‘has been single-track’.

‘Now more than ever the UK will require the right mix of workforce that has higher order skills and competencies and/or knowledge and understanding. We can no longer allow a two-tier education system to serve a two-tier labour market and must act now to ensure all learners have a route into a high skill and high wage economy,’ he said.

‘We must also ensure every penny of state investment in education and training makes a real difference and provides tangible evidence of value, linked to a rebalance of engagement in next level development at university or in the workplace.’

Measuring success and concerns

Although there are many positive aspects of T Levels, such as providing skills yet leaving students with several options for the future, it has also brought about some questions on measuring its success. How can the government roll out this huge project without a tool in place to assess how it will impact employability?

‘In our research published in May, Sense and Instability, City & Guilds Group found there is a real lack of success measures in place for skills policy, meaning that millions of pounds are spent on policies without any clear understanding of their impact. A new Prime Minister means we’re likely to see a new education team and we would urge them to focus on developing some clear success measures for T Levels before they are rolled out nationally,’ Craven said.

‘Rather than focusing on outputs, a T Level should be judged successful or otherwise against measures such as numbers of students employed following a T Level, future earning potential of T Level students versus those that don’t take them, progression into higher education or higher level technical education.

‘One of our recommendations is the creation of an independent body that can oversee skills policy-making, holding the government to account for the successful implementation of policy and using data to better plan and evaluate the activity.’

He went on to highlight the growing concern around the practicality of industry placements, stating that although the policy of completing an industry placement is good, offering a one-size-fits-all approach could disadvantage students living in areas where there are little to no employers within the students’ chosen field. ‘There should be more flexibility in how the industry placement can be delivered, including an option to engage in pseudo work experience within the student’s place of study, and it is essential that there is a way to credit the Technical Qualification separate from the T Levels programme certificate to allow for part achievement to be recognised. This credit must be more than a transcript of completion,’ he said.

Agreeing with Craven’s concerns, Policy Exchange Senior Research Fellow, Tom Richmond, said in the study A qualified success – An investigation into T-levels and the wider vocational system, ‘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 Sainsbury 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 provision 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 “we do not believe that T Levels provide a suitable preparation for students”’.

In a tes.com article, Federation of Awarding Bodies CEO and Company Secretary, Tom Bewick, also raised concerns over the industry placements and the likelihood of business engagement. ‘We cannot assume that employers are going to simultaneously spring into action to provide high-quality industry placements. England is not Switzerland, where two-thirds of young people are successfully placed with employers doing apprenticeships or technical education at the age of 16,’ he said.

‘To secure the success of T Levels long-term, ministers may have to consider either financial subsidies to firms to offer the placements, or possibly legislate for companies over a certain size to provide 16-18 year olds with enough placements, effectively mandating employers in the occupational routes offered by T Levels to engage more effectively with the scheme.

‘The history of employer engagement in work experience in England is abysmal, so appealing solely to an altruistic motivation, on the part of businesses to support T Levels, is fraught with challenges. Especially when the government is saying that a T Level will not be valid unless 45 days of industry experience has been successfully completed.’

T Levels for the teachers

In preparation for T Levels, it is not only creating the curriculum that is important, as previously mentioned a vast amount of learning is classroom-based. The Education and Training Foundation Head of T Level Professional Development, Sam Dilliway-Davies, told Materials World that proper support for teachers at the beginning is vital. ‘As the national workforce body for the further education and training sector, the Education and Training Foundation is delivering a suite of high-quality support for the teachers, trainers and leaders who will be delivering T Levels in 2020 and beyond,’ he said.

‘The T Level professional development offer will ensure that teachers and trainers have the teaching skills, subject knowledge and confidence needed to deliver a high-quality T Level programme from the outset.’

Onwards

There is little doubt that to safeguard the success of T Levels, serious efforts need to be made to address the problem areas noted by the industry regarding work placements and implementation. If issues are ironed out, this could enable T Levels to grow into a positive, credible path that leads to a skilled workforce.

As Richmond said, ‘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’.