Barnaby Lenon, Chairman of the Independent Schools Council, on the introduction of T-levels

Since the late 19th century, England has been struggling with vocational education. It became clear that countries like Germany, France and Japan were eating away at the industrial lead England had established between 1750 and 1850, and this was partly because of their superior training.

England has faced several barriers to successful vocational training: snobbery about non-university courses, an inability to decide whether the Government or employers should be taking the lead, a proliferation of huge numbers of vocational courses which are unknown to the general public, and changes in government policy so frequent that vocational courses never took root. 

In order to try and improve the situation, the current Government is introducing a set of new technical courses called T-levels. Many competing vocational courses will be swept away in order to simplify the system. The T-levels will be high-quality and should be a viable alternative to A-levels for those students who know the career path they would like to pursue. 

T-levels are being planned for the following areas:

  • 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

These two-year T-levels will be offered to students aged 16+ and phased in after 2020. Three T-levels in Construction, Digital Skills and Childcare will be delivered by a small number of providers from September 2020. A further seven T-levels will be available from September 2021, with the remainder rolled out from September 2022 onwards. The Government’s current aim is for all T-levels to be introduced by September 2023 across the 11 main areas. 

The 11 T-level subjects are broad so they will each be broken down into separate ‘occupational specialisms’, each of which can be a T-level. In other words, there will be many more than 11 T-levels – probably 40-60. For example, the ‘digital’ route could be broken down into three: IT support and services, software and applications and data and digital business services. 

Each T-level will have several elements:

  • A common core of useful knowledge, skills and behaviours that may be examined on paper
  • A specific vocational course (called a Technical Qualification), which assesses someone’s ability to do things – called ‘competences’ 
  • Employability skills such as computer literacy, reliability and attitude
  • A 45-60 day work placement 
  • Maths, English and digital requirements 
  • Any other occupation-specific requirements/qualifications

There are a number of reasons why the new T-levels might fail. In England, what universities and further education colleges offer is demand-led. What individual students want determines which courses are offered. So courses can be offered, but they fail if demand is not there. Many 16-year-olds may not be willing to opt for one particular career (a T-level pathway) at that age, preferring to keep their options open by taking A-levels or applied generals. Another challenge for the Government will be persuading students and parents that a vocational education is of the same value and esteem as an academic education.

However, we should support the T-level reform. We need to improve our vocational provisions and this qualification is very well-conceived.  

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