Ian Pretty

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To get T levels right it would help to know what they're for

Recent events have thrown so many aspects of daily life into doubt. The emergence of a worldwide pandemic has altered practically every aspect of daily life.

These reverberations have been felt acutely within the further education and skills sector. Colleges are having to scramble to move their programmes online, examinations are axed, and apprenticeships disrupted. These developments are profound, and colleges are managing a crisis unlike anything experienced in recent history.

The resilience and determination that colleges have shown in combatting these unexpected developments has been remarkable. Their efforts stand as a testament to the dedication they have to their learners and local communities.

But this unprecedented situation also provides an opportunity for us to look at the big picture and think about how the skills system can emerge from this crisis. Despite all the uncertainty, there is still a need to look to the future.

So, let’s consider the centrepiece of Governments reform to technical education in England: T levels and their place within the skills system.

A primary goal of the new qualification is to create a step-change in the quality of technical education by creating a new “gold standard” level 3 programme. But let’s not forget how big a task ensuring success for these new qualifications is. The programme is substantial, and the implementation timetable was always hugely ambitious.

Even before the outbreak of Covid 19 there were serious doubts about the future viability of T levels, and concerns about whether T levels are going to be ready have never really gone away. Take a report from National Foundation for Educational Research released back in December which found, among other concerns, that providers are worried about the late availability of full course specifications, flexibility around industry placements and access to technically skilled lecturers to teach T levels.

There could always be reasons to justify why the launch of a programme so substantial and ambitious as T levels could be held back. There could always be things to tweak and adjustments to make. It has long been the stated ambition of the government to ensure that the first wave of T levels commence delivery by September 2020. But the reality for both colleges and employers is that the next six months are going to throw up an unprecedented number of challenges.

One option, as suggested by the Federation of Awarding bodies, could be to delay the first wave of T levels that were due to go live this September. The government, however, has indicated that it wants to continue with the rollout of the first three waves as planned. There are certainly arguments both for and against a delay.

But there is a more pertinent question about what the true purpose of T levels is. Will a T level be a niche qualification, or will it become the technical equivalent to A levels?

The pronouncements of the government seem to indicate the later. But there are crucial differences: A levels, after all, are widely accessible to learners throughout the country and they also enjoy a strong brand and reputation. But just how accessible will T levels really be? The intention at this stage is for only Ofsted good or above providers to be eligible to deliver T levels. This makes sense from the perspective of trying to mitigate risk and ensure quality in delivery, but this restriction will undoubtedly limit enrolments. The challenge is exemplified by providers who would have initially been able to deliver a T level based on their inspection rating but have since been compelled to undertake mergers that have negatively impacted their Ofsted assessment. If the goal is to make these qualifications truly accessible, then maybe there is a rationale to look at providers capacity to deliver on a case by case basis, especially when a provider would fill a T level cold spot across a given geography.

Ultimately, it appears that there appears to be a fundamental tension between the ambition of the government to secure the status of T levels as the technical gold standard while at the same time constricting the delivery infrastructure to make these qualifications widely accessible.

This of course says nothing about the new challenges that are posed now around industry placements and the fact that awareness around T levels is still low among parents and learners.

So, I hope that the coming months could provide an opportunity to evaluate how we conceptualise the key purpose of T levels and how they can achieve their “gold standard” status by ensuring they enhance their reputation and endeavour to be made available to as many learners as possible.

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