T-levels: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Last week Altain joined around 150 delegates at a Westminster forum conference in London to discuss next steps for T-levels with the added benefit of Lord Baker in the chair for part of the session. While there is universal support for the principle of the T-levels programme views on the approach varied markedly.

For those unable to make it we have captured some of the critical points debated during the session below:

The Good

In addition to in principle support for the programme speakers and delegates were positive about the following:

  • Work placement: A feature that has researched very well with students and their parents and hence a potential point of differentiation versus alternatives. However, the challenge of delivering on the promise is substantial, requiring the support of businesses including SMEs, not just large employers.
  • Routes and Pathways: This presentation of opportunities recognizes the difference in requirements of young people transitioning to the workplace from adult education and offers a sound basis for representing Technical education as an alternative to the traditional A level/University route.
  • Funding: A promise of £500m pa once T- levels are entirely on stream is popular with colleges

The Bad

Hurdles to be overcome discussed included:

  • Tight time frames: Reform of high stakes qualifications is a serious endeavor and a sense that there is a need for prioritization and less of a moving feast on crucial aspects such as assessment.
  • CEIAG and a Demand side gap: The conversation was heavily skewed to supply side considerations. Attracting students of the right caliber is essential, and this is made more challenging by an under-resourced ‘Careers strategy’ and academic bias in school’s curriculum with limited opportunities for students to experience technical options. Addressing these issues will benefit from more concerted demand side action and integration of perspectives of a broader range of employers as well as students and their parents.
  • Looking forward as well as learning from the past: As Lord Baker reminded us the ‘Time-honored tradition’ is to lead with reform of the qualification changing the rest of the system to fit. Arguably a leading contributory factor to lack of success most recently with the 14 to 19 Diploma. Hence a need for fresh thinking as well as learning from the past.

The Ugly

Arguably less attractive aspects of the current system that prompted proposed policy changes included:

  • Sainsbury review: Key amongst the concerns expressed about the existing situation was the complex qualifications landscape and potential for a ‘race to the bottom.’
  • ‘Single provider’: The above concerns precipitated a proposed change from a market-based model to a single contract for each pathway. A move that concerns many in the awarding sector and remains contested
  • Untidy Institutional arrangements: An observation that there is potential for misaligned activities given the range of institutions required to pull together for the success of T levels – prompting the suggestion by Lord Baker of the need for an honest broker.

A Market Dimension 

It is worth reiterating that there is good support for the principles behind T levels however in the light of prior experiences it is equally valid for some to question if T levels might struggle to deliver on goals and aspirations. A key point in T-levels favour is that unlike its predecessors there is a stronger sense of latent market demand for alternatives due to skills gaps, Brexit and arguably an oversupply of graduates.

However, this also begs the question about what needs to be done to meet the needs of the here and now while T-levels build capacity. This immediate need gives credence to suggestions for not throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Your view?

Are you supportive of the principle of T levels? How pivotal is work placement? What do you see as the main opportunities and threats? Please share your thoughts below.