T levels and alternatives

Effigy Blinds

The Oxford Cambridge and RSA held a “Let’s talk about T levels” forum on Thursday 11 October 2018 and I was privileged to be invited to attend.

If you don’t know anything about them the T levels are proposed new qualification for technical education in the UK. This came about from the Sainsbury review published in 2016 which identified over 13,000 post -16 technical courses, some of which, it claimed, were not valued or understood. The review was about creating the kinds of pathways that would lead people to success.

At 16, students will choose between an academic study programme (A Levels and Applied General Qualifications such as OCR’s Cambridge Technicals) or an occupational route (T Level or apprenticeship)

T levels on their own will not be enough to create a high class technical education system and will compose of 11 routes to the qualification. The first three, digital, construction and education and childcare are due to be started in 2020 with another four being added each of the next two years. While some argued that students commencing one route, for example Education and Childcare might believe themselves in a box which they subsequently feel to be restricting or even not what they want to pursue. However, the Collab group (representing large FE colleges) working with Emsi a labour market analytics company recently published a paper, based on the Occupational Information Network database (O*NET), showed that in fact when we compare seemingly dissimilar pathways, learners are gaining a set of highly transferable skills. That statement may be up for discussion as this kind of comparison is opinion based and the evidence over time may not back this up.

What is not clear at the moment is whether those skills and the sparkly new qualification will be accepted as an entry level for degree level courses which advanced general qualifications and AVQ’s are currently.

What is clear is that T levels will always take up the major part of 16-19 education alongside maths, English and the work placement requirement while AGQ’s can come in smaller sizes which can be taken alongside a batch of A levels or be  studied on their own. This leaves a gap between the level 3 qualification and the required level for entry to degree course education establishments.

The forum discussed T levels from a wide perspective including topic headings not limited to:

  • Capacity building (securing a workforce with the right technical experience)
  • How the first wave of schools are preparing for delivery
  • Providing advice and guidance to students making choices at 16
  • Securing employer involvement in development and delivery, including employer projects and industry placements.
  • Bridging programs and routes to HE

Many other aspects such as safeguarding for both students and a company’s employees, the working relationships and the quality of those delivering tutelage, mentoring and the work programs themselves were all raised as needing further discussion and possibly more in-depth research with regards to the work placements.

One of the main questions relates to the fact that employers are all very different even in the simple divergence as to size, sector and product market. In addition to these work placements for T levels many employers also manage apprentices, GNVQ, diploma and other technical qualifications as well as being involved in engagement with other learning centres as part of their CSR programs or in collaboration with the Careers and Enterprise Company.

Is it asking too much of employers that they also take on responsibility for the qualification, design and delivery of the work placement programs? How can businesses be persuaded that the merits of T levels are to their benefit? At a base level - what’s in it for them?

There must be clarity of purpose from those offering placements:

What are the aims of the employers?

Do these deliver the learning opportunities and give the students the framework to make sense of them, internalise and act upon them?

Will it be clear that there are links between the work placement experience and the classroom-based learning?

What sort of evidence will be used to confirm learning or that the experience was beneficial and how will this evidence be assessed and by whom?

That questions arise faster than answers as the process continues to evolve is maybe natural, but I can see the beginnings of employers taking a stand where they feel the opportunities they can offer will swing more in favour of apprenticeships than placements for T level students.

Rick Grain
Effigy Blinds
Chamber representative on the OCR employer board