What is the point of T levels? Who are they for and what will they achieve?

By Clare Vokes, Research Manager

Manufacturers, engineers and other employers have been concerned about a lack of valuable, sought after skills for years. They are crying out for work-ready young recruits with technical competence who can help them to grow their businesses. Enter T Levels. ‘Rigorous and credible’, the T Level is intended to be a ‘gold standard’ technical qualification of professional competence.

Warm welcome
In some quarters, T levels have been favourably received. Employers widely welcome the commitment to ‘real’ and quality work experience. They acknowledge that traditional examination-style assessment may not be the best way to assess technical expertise. They are also keen to achieve parity of esteem with the tried and tested academic route.

One of the drivers behind the T level initiative was the 2016 Sainsbury Report, which concluded that technical education – with its 13,000 qualifications – had become overly complicated. The introduction of T levels – running alongside apprenticeships – is an attempt to simplify the 16-18 landscape. Then again, mapping 15 occupational routes covering occupations as diverse as farrier, golf greenkeeper, milliner and production manager is not actually straightforward – a glance at the working document accompanying this process illustrates that point admirably!

Occupational competence
On the face of it, some occupations seem well suited to the T level model. Business administration, for example, works well in the classroom and students will obviously benefit from relevant work experience. Other learners, however, may choose to follow T levels which (even at this stage) the DfE acknowledge will not equip them with full occupational competence and they will need to follow up with an apprenticeship. Still others will not have a T level option – occupations such as adult care worker or forestry operative will be accessible only via the apprenticeship route.

Poor relation
It is this lack of consistency which highlights a major problem behind the T level. By proposing the T level as a third way between the traditional, academic route and an apprenticeship, there is an implied academisation of the T level. And yet, under the current proposals, it’s hard to avoid seeing T levels as the poor relation – or younger brother, at least – of the apprenticeship. Why would a young person choose a T level when he/she could get out there as an apprentice instead? The T level model looks remarkably similar to a Programme of Study – what is the difference, and how would that be explained to young people and parents? These are just a couple of the questions we have heard first-hand from employers and providers.

Challenges ahead
Apprenticeships themselves have had a lot to deal with in recent times. As a non-departmental public body sponsored by DfE, the Institute for Apprenticeships was launched just over a year ago. Since then the controversial apprenticeship levy was introduced and was quickly followed by a dramatic reduction in apprenticeship start numbers. The Institute’s chief executive, Sir Gerry Berragan, sounds like a man who means business. His short, sharp opening salvo ‘Faster and Better’, which was published soon after he joined in November sets his stall out brilliantly. Nevertheless, he has spent his first few months in office transforming the existing framework into a set of employer-led standards which will be fit for purpose. He is grim-faced about the challenges ahead and warns that, if it is to have chance to succeed, the new system needs the opportunity to ‘bed in’.

Tight deadlines
In the cold light of day, the decision to expand the Institute’s remit to include T levels makes sense. The theory is that the two technical options complement each other, and will share the same standards, but Sir Gerry is not entirely comfortable with this as it stands. He’s concerned about the timeline for T levels – the first three routes will be launched in 2020. He cautions that fudging their delivery will backfire drastically and rather than add to the prestige of technical education, they could damage it instead.

But this still leaves the fundamental questions of – why would a young person choose a T level over an apprenticeship? What is different about a T level from the current offer?

It is unfortunate then, that whilst the development process is well underway there is still an awful lot of uncertainty about how T levels fit in to technical education provision. Not only does the story need telling more clearly, it seems there are still characters to outline and the plot to finish off too.

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