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What is needed to improve the odds of T Levels’ success

Simon Connell, CEO, Baker Dearing Educational Trust, argues while T Levels have moved from their original intent, there still needs to be apprenticeship options at the end of them, and existing vocational courses must be maintained.

No battle plan survives first contact with the enemy, so it’s hardly a surprise that since T Levels were conceived as part of the Sainsbury Review, there has been movement away from their original intent.

The ambitions at the time were clear: industry experts would lay down the knowledge and methods of assessment for new qualifications; young people would be provided with clear educational routes leading to employment; and provisions would enable students to switch between academic and technical education routes.

Last week, Baker Dearing asked UTC principals and employer partners to respond to the latest inquiry into whether post-16 qualifications really do prepare young people for the world of work. Their feedback shows that we have shifted away from those original ambitions.

Of course, raising the profile of technical courses through T Levels is welcomed, as are reducing over 4,000 Level 3 qualifications and addressing chronic underfunding for post-16 delivery.

However, T Levels are fundamentally different qualifications from those already available. They should complement, rather than replace, current offerings. By removing existing qualifications, 70 per cent of UTC leavers who started excellent apprenticeship and university pathways last summer would not be able to complete their courses: these qualifications will not be available in the proposed new landscape. This represents a significant risk to the future workforce, and in turn the economy, over a very short period of time. A longer transition period is needed.

Removing existing technical qualifications will also deter many young people, currently progressing to Level 3 technical study at age 16, from doing so. Methods of assessment such as ‘high stakes’ exams do not suit all learners. At the same time, flexibility to combine academic and technical qualifications, which the system now provides and is highly valued by UTC employer partners and students, will be lost. How does this reconcile with the ambition that technical qualifications should be employer-led?

Ultimately, of course, students will decide whether T Levels are a success. Here, two policy initiatives are needed to skew the odds. First, without addressing the dearth of higher- and degree-apprenticeship opportunities, T Levels may be seen as providing ‘false hope’. Second, preparing young people for the world of work must start earlier than at age 16. Students need to ‘try’ technical courses at pre-16 before they ‘buy’ at post-16. Accountability measures such as Ebacc have squeezed vital technical and creative courses out of the pre-16 curriculum. This too must change for T Levels to succeed.


Published in The Mark, 31 January 2022