If you are an English reader, reading this blog, the chances are high that you studied (or are studying) A Levels before going to university. Alternative options are available post-16, but they are currently in a state of flux, whether or not you intend to go to university. Frankly, sitting outside that part of the system, it all looks a bit of a (predictable?) mess. The Government’s own flagship programme of T Levels, introduced in 2020 (T for technical) are intended to be the vocational equivalent to A Levels. They are still being introduced across the full gamut of topics, but started out in 2020 in the areas of
- design, surveying and planning for construction
- digital production, design and development
- education and early years such as construction
with more topics rolled out in successive years and more still to come.
In order to prepare the student for the world of work, a mandatory part of the course was a minimum of 315 hours (around 45 days) work placement, and all the courses taught were supposed to have been developed in conjunction with employers.
In the abstract it sounds excellent but, as a recent report from Ofsted has shown, there are many problems. One of these most easily foreseen is connected with those required days of industrial placement. As the report says
The number of suitable placements is often limited in any given area because of the specific employment sector where the placement is required and the length of time students are required to attend.
Here we see regional issues raising their ugly heads. In those areas with few major employers – think Fenland or the Black Country – it will be particularly difficult for providers to source appropriate placements. Yet, to use a phrase that is barely now seen except in the name of Michael Gove’s department, the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities (DHLUC for short), these regions are exactly those for whom levelling up is most important. Urban areas may fare better in provision, but large rural swathes of England, or former mining communities for instance, will be hard-pressed to provide appropriate on-site hours of training to fulfil the placement requirement.
Even where placements have been found, the report says:
Often employers are poorly informed about the content and structure of T Levels. In these cases, activities that students complete on industry placements are not well aligned with the T Level course content.
Things have obviously not gone to plan, if this is happening when employers were meant to be involved in the development of courses.
The reports criticisms continue: it’s been established that there is a very high drop out rate without a successful completion of the course, noting ‘In at least one provider, no students progressed from the first year of the T Level course to the second year.’ That’s a lot of wasted effort on many people’s part. The course teachers are also finding things tough, which is probably relevant to this last point. Vocational teachers, used to other formats of courses, often seem to be struggling with the more theoretical aspects, finding it hard to set work that is appropriately challenging. Staff also worry ‘that parents and school staff do not understand T Level qualifications.’ Furthermore, universities aren’t always ready to accept these qualifications, so upon completion students may end up disappointed that they hit a dead end in their specific aspirations. All these impacts combined mean it can be no surprise that institutions running the courses are finding it hard to recruit and retain the teachers to teach them.
It is of course not all bad news, with the report highlighting they found some satisfied students, employers and teachers, but overall Ofsted are clearly not impressed. What I find particularly sad is that the challenges identified were known from the outset, with many people speaking out against the reforms. The regional issues, in particular, will always have been an obvious barrier to the successful delivery of such courses, yet the Government seems to be pressing ahead with defunding BTECs (Business and Technology Education Council) at Level 3, so-called BTEC Nationals, in the hopes that T Levels may be an ‘improved’ replacement. In contrast to the last point above, universities do understand BTECs as a well-established ‘brand’, that will qualify a student for admission to many courses. With the T Level requirement of 315 hours of placement being a mandatory part of the qualification, parts of the country are simply going to have less opportunity for their young to follow a vocational path. Apprentices, after all, are no more likely to be available in these places if the employers aren’t there, so what are those for whom A Levels are not the appropriate route (or for which their GCSE grades do not qualify them) meant to do?
The UK needs a more skilled workforce, skilled at all levels. For all the apparent attention being given by the government to routes to eventual employment which don’t involve universities, for all that universities are definitely not high on the government’s list of friends, the introduction of T Levels just seems to have muddied the post-16 education waters further. It is a sad, missed opportunity and, as the Financial Times reports today in a long article about the UK’s weak productivity, our companies will continue to suffer from ‘patchy educational outcomes and skills gaps‘ in their workers, which these changes will do nothing to address.