T-levels: Too big to fail?

The Government continues to roll out its programme of T-levels,  new technical qualifications in England, originating from a review commissioned by David Cameron and then a White Paper published by Teresa May

The first 3 T Levels were launched in September 2020, in digital, construction and childcare.  A further 7 began in September 2021 (2 more digital routes, 2 more in construction and 3 in health and science). In September of this year, another 6 will be launched, with the remaining 7 in 2023 (plans have just been announced to introduce a 24th T in marketing for 2025).  Meanwhile the Department for Education has published a list of around 450 institutions that have committed to delivering them.

According to the Department, 1,300 students started a T Level in 2020 with a further 950 on a ‘Transition Programme’ (a one-year course for students without appropriate entry qualifications, though Maths and English requirements have now been dropped) with 5,450 more registrations last September.  The slow speed of the roll-out (only 80 centres are currently involved in delivery), means these figures cannot be considered representative, but media reports have claimed many providers have undershot recruitment targets – particularly for construction, with a sixth form in Surrey said to have only one student! With well over 4000 institutions offering post-16 education, the size of the take up also needs to be kept in perspective.

The list also shows many centres, particularly schools, offering only one or two Ts.  This is because the infrastructure requirements to provide the full range of Ts are well beyond most schools. (Originally the Ts were going to be restricted to a handful of ‘specialist’ FE colleges, but now any provider with at least a ‘Good’ Ofsted rating is eligible to sign up).  But with Rishi Sunak having announced £1.6 billion for developing T-levels for up to 100,000 students and over 150 building projects from sports therapy rooms and construction workshops to new ‘digital hubs’ already sanctioned, for many, T-levels are already ‘too big to fail’ and the government is playing for high stakes. So much so that it wants to make the Ts the only alternative to academic A-levels and has already published a long list of technical and vocational qualifications, including some popular BTEC awards, no longer being funded from 2024, because it’s been decided their content overlaps with that of the Ts.

It’s the mandatory 45 work placement (which will be done in the second year) differentiates the T-levels from previous full-time vocational and technical qualifications.

According to the DfE 2021 T-level Action Plan:

‘The industry placement will help students to refine their technical and practical skills, knowledge and behaviours, ensuring they are ‘work ready’. T Level graduates will be an attractive proposition for many employers’

Yet despite the offer of a £1000 fee for each placement there are serious concerns about its feasibility, compounded by a more general lack of awareness, but also, lack of interest, amongst individual employers about the qualification. Because of the absence of any coordinated work placement scheme for young people in England, placements have tended to last a week or two and left to individual schools and colleges to arrange. There have been reports of supportive employers sometimes having to take more students than intended because of the reluctance of others, resulting in placements invariably being of lower quality. If placement lengths need to be reduced, as some now argue, the potential of the qualification and in particular, its attractiveness to students will be seriously undermined.

The Ts sit between A-levels and workplace-based apprenticeships. Wanting to emphasise that T-levels can also serve as alternative routes to university study, the DfE has published a list of over a hundred Higher Education providers recognising them as entrance qualifications. But, as with previous rounds of vocational qualifications, with one or two exceptions, ‘Elite’ universities have stated they will not recognise them as  entrance qualifications. As a consequence, Nadhim Zahawi’s comment about the Ts becoming ’as famous as A-levels’ has become somewhat deflated.

But it’s T-levels ability to facilitate the transition to skilled/technician level employment that continues to be the main, longer-term aim of the government.  Alongside the proposals in the last years FE White Paper, the Ts are part of a plan to create what some have termed a new ‘technical elite’. Yet as argued below, this is a misreading of the requirements of 21st century economies and the occupational structures they are generating – where, largely, though not exclusively because of developments in automation and AI, ‘middle-jobs’ are declining instead of being required to ‘upskill’, more young people are being ‘pushed down’ the occupational structure.  As significant has been the expansion of higher education in UK. Where better paid, higher skilled jobs do exist, there are more than enough graduates to fill them. In constantly emphasising ‘skills deficits’ government plans also downplay other important factors that improve workplace productivity, like continued investment in new technology, research and development and above all, government intervention in the economy through a proper industrial strategy.

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