The new technical qualification has worrying design flawsby David Laws / June 1, 2018 / Leave a comment
General view of the Department for Education. Photo: Nick Ansell/PA Archive/PA Images The recent “exchange of letters” between the Education Secretary, Damian Hinds, and his top departmental civil servant, Jonathan Slater, over the roll-out of the new T-levels was courteous and diplomatic. However, the polite words cannot disguise the significant disagreement and huge risks to the development of the government’s new sixth form technical qualification. It will be “very challenging” to ensure that T-levels are taught to a “consistently high standard,” wrote Slater. It really is extraordinarily unusual for permanent secretaries (not least at the education department) to express their concerns about policy delivery in this way. Civil servants and ministers usually move heaven and earth to avoid public bust-ups, which can seriously undermine relations and cast doubt over the delivery of key policies. Slater must have had very serious concerns indeed to write this “accounting officer” letter. As interesting, Hinds has chosen to ignore the very clear advice. Is this just a department for education spat, or does it matter? Potentially, it matters a lot. This new option for post-16 vocational study, soon to be rolled out for 25 courses,is looking problematic to say the least. Governments have a poor record of introducing new “technical/vocational” qualifications (remember Diplomas?). If you are an employer being asked to provide T-Level work placements, is this spat more or less likely to make you want to engage? If you are a parent or a potential T-Level student, do you really want to risk being a “guinea pig” taking a new qualification in 2020 or 2021 when the top education civil servant has publicly stated his concern? Many more people will now be tempted to “wait and see,” particularly given that only 50 or so providers are so far lined up to offer the first three T-levels (in digital, childcare and education, and construction). T-Levels will only be a success if they are seen as being a credible and high quality vocational route, likely to last and gain labour market value. It would be far better in my view for the government to take time to get this new qualification right than to rush the process of design, consultation and development. But is this just a matter of how long the new qualifications are going to take to deliver, or are there issues of real substance involved? In many ways, the new T-Levels seem like a welcome innovation, designed to simplify the current poorly understood vocational qualification offer and raise the value and status of the vocational pathway. However, there are some real, practical, concerns, as well as getting the delivery timescales right. T-Levels require a large component of work experience, which seems to make sense. But given the currently low level of employer understanding of T-Levels, will employers really be willing to offer the huge commitment of work placement hours necessary? And how much of this will be quality training? Employers are already being asked to do more on apprenticeships, which may use up good will and capacity. Will T-levels be delivered in many schools, or will most be delivered in colleges? So far, this looks like a “colleges only” product. Outside cities, will this ensure access for most students, and how will their travel costs be covered? Is it sensible for the government to restrict each T-Level to one awarding organisation? This can reduce innovation, increase delivery risk, and gradually lead to dependency on the one supplier. We don’t do this for A-Levels or GCSEs (though the 2010 Coalition government toyed with this idea). More fundamentally, will T-Levels really usher in a new world in which technical and academic pathways somehow have equal status? Frankly, I doubt this will be achieved in the foreseeable future—certainly it cannot be mandated by government but only earned over time, if high achieving students are persuaded to consider non-academic routes. A more sensible objective is that we have an education system designed to serve the range of interests, aptitudes and aspirations that we find amongst our young people—a system which supports and enables different, informed, choices to be made at the right time, and a system which enables progression on through different routes, rather than requiring young people to commit themselves to one career route before they are ready. As the recent EPI/Pearson Report on skills, “Educating for Our Economic Future,” chaired by Roy Anderson, concluded: “There is a risk the new landscape represents a bifurcation into two narrow paths that fail to appeal to those motivated by a more ‘career-based’ education, developing knowledge of particular industries whilst leaving a range of options open for technical training or academic study later.” At present, some students choose to take “applied general” qualifications alongside A-Levels. Many then go on to university. For some students on a vocational route, university may not be the best choice—these individuals may wish to go straight into employment or they may benefit from better funded and supported routes into level 4 and level 5 training. As a country we could also, arguably, benefit from a broader range of provision in higher education, with more professional, technical and shorter courses. At present, there is a risk that for some students, T-Levels could lead to specialism at too early a stage, and could reduce options such as accessing higher education. The DfE says it wants to enable HE access, but some universities have already indicated little enthusiasm for T-levels as entry qualifications. The government is considering many of these issues as part of the “Post-18 Funding Review.” It would be sensible to link up work on the Post-18 review with policy on T-Levels. Taking more time to get T-Levels right might allow these issues to be properly joined up, rather than seeking to fix each problem in isolation. As a former minister, I know why there is an urgency to deliver, a desire to “press on,” and sometimes a frustration with civil service caution. But Slater’s call to take time and get T-Levels right is almost certainly good advice. Rushing the reform of vocational/technical education raises the risk of failing to deliver on worthy aspirations.