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The introduction of T Levels

Greater Birmingham Chambers of Commerce

On 11 October, Education Secretary Justine Greening announced that the first three T levels in Digital, Construction and Education and Childcare will be taught from 2020. The full set of T levels will be introduced by 2022.

This follows directly from an independent panel review last year, chaired by Lord Sainsbury. The review concluded that the existing education system was too complex and included too many qualifications which didn’t provide young people with the necessary skills to enter the workforce.

Criticism of the existing technical education system has often included discussions that it is unresponsive and suffers from a lack of engagement with employers. The Sainsbury report also linked skills deficits arising from insufficient education provisions, to the UK’s productivity gap.

In fact, a joint report from the Department of Education and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (here) quoted that “If all young people in the UK acquired basic skills by 2030, then by 2095 the UK economy would be 13% larger than would be expected with the current labour force. In monetary terms, this equates to 3.65 trillion US dollars (143% of current UK Gross Domestic Product (GDP).”

The West Midlands Combined Authority (WMCA) has reported recently that GVA– the value generated by any unit engaged in the production of goods and services– per head in the WMCA area is currently nearly £3,500 lower than the national average (source).

The Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce is running an ongoing campaign, Growth Through People, to help businesses close this gap regionally.

T levels are being proposed nationally to overhaul existing technical education provisions, and put the technical courses on an equal footing with alternative academic work such as A levels.

Chancellor Phillip Hammond, in his Spring Budget, announced that T levels will replace around 13,000 separate, existing qualifications with 15 clear, career focussed routes. Within these will be over 50% more training hours for 16-19 year old students, including a “high-quality,” 3-month work placement for each of them.

It is also anticipated by the Department of Education that all T level routes will include transferrable employability skills (to be taught prior to work placements). What these will be has not yet been conveyed.

The 15 available routes are:

  • Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care
  • Business and Administrative
  • Catering and Hospitality
  • Childcare and Education
  • Construction
  • Creative and Design
  • Digital
  • Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Hair and Beauty
  • Health and Science
  • Legal, Finance and Accounting
  • Protective Services
  • Sales, Marketing and Procurement
  • Social Care
  • Transport and Logistics

As some of these (for instance, Creative and Design) cover such a broad spectrum of occupational areas, there will be varying numbers of sub-sections within them, allowing for multiple qualifications within the same T level route.

And the recently-reformed apprenticeships are to sit within T levels – in fact, the post-16 skills plan proposed that four routes are to “primarily be delivered through apprenticeships” (source): protective services; sales, marketing and procurement; social care; and transport and logistics.

The remaining eleven of the 15 routes will be available as two-year college courses, or as apprenticeships.

Backed by companies including Chamber members Rolls Royce, Lloyds and Morgan Sindall, these initial T level qualifications aim to be a ‘key milestone in transforming technical education in the UK’ (source). These companies will, together with a range of others, sit on panels developing the content of T levels.

Initially, it is likely that T levels will be delivered by select colleges, but eventually more colleges and schools may opt to offer them to students. Standards will be monitored by Ofsted.

The Chancellor additionally stated that maintenance loans will be offered to support T level students who undertake higher level technical qualifications at National Colleges and Institutes of Technology.

Immediately, T levels have been criticised as reminiscent of Labour’s 14-19 diplomas, launched in 2008 and scrapped by 2013. Much like T levels, these offered 14 industry/employment ‘lines of learning,’ all of which comprised principal learning, based on the chosen ‘route,’ generic  learning (skills in areas such as English, Maths and Digital Skills) and additional and specialist learning.

T levels may refer to a “specialisation towards a skilled occupation or set of occupations” and a “core” of areas such as English/Maths/Digital Skills, but the two are clearly similar models.

Why 14-19 diplomas failed is a matter of debate. Some say policy makers didn’t give them long enough to succeed before scrapping them. Others have blamed the fact that many universities didn’t accept them as qualifications for further study.

However, T levels are about more than ‘new qualifications;’ they are an attempt to redefine standards of technical education in the UK, and what is indisputably clear is that major intervention – perhaps like this - is necessary to tackle growing skills gaps nationally and regionally.