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Five things you need to know about T-levels

29 Jul 2020 By Matt Hamnett

A set of major changes for businesses employing people with technical skillsets is fast approaching, says Matt Hamnett, so HR must prepare now

Is a nine an A? What’s a C now? Why are they doing this anyway? All reasonable questions about recent changes to GCSE grading. Keeping up with education system changes – and qualifications in particular – can be a bit of a nightmare for HR and business leaders.

You could be forgiven for thinking that apprenticeships are the main thing you’re supposed to be active on: developing new standards that work for your business; spending your levy; staying the right side of an ocean of rules; taking advantage of Rishi’s special offers. And you wouldn’t be wrong.  

But another set of major changes that will have a huge impact on businesses that employ people with technical skillsets is fast approaching. The government is rolling out T-levels as an alternative option for young people at 16. And you need to know all about them, so here are five key things you need to understand:

They’ll provide a work-focused alternative to A-levels

The government’s stated objective for the introduction of T-levels is to create a work-focused alternative to A-levels for young people when they finish their GCSEs. They want to give young people the opportunity to pursue a more applied, vocational pathway that carries the same value and esteem as the traditional academic route.  

The quest for so-called ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational education has been a longstanding and laudable one. But it’s often been undermined by clumsy attempts at false equivalence and the translation of practices associated with academia into a vocational setting. T-levels represent a considered, fundamental and substantial effort – where apprentice graduation ceremonies have always felt to me like an exercise in papering over gaping cracks.

They’re being developed in close consultation with business

Successive governments have talked about building an education and skills system that responds to the needs of employers; over the last decade and more, the narrative has evolved to put more and more emphasis on the government’s desire to put employers ‘in charge’ of education.  

The introduction of T-levels builds on apprenticeship reforms by drawing employers directly into the process through which qualifications are developed. The awarding organisations leading the development of T-levels are working with hundreds of sector representative bodies, employers and current practitioners to ensure the qualifications that underpin T-levels intimately reflect the needs of the sectors and occupations they’re designed to serve.

We have seen with apprenticeships the remarkable willingness of employers to roll up their sleeves and dive into the granular detail – because they see the value in a set of national qualifications, delivered at great scale, which reflect what they need from their people. Indications are that the same is happening with T-levels.

They’ll include a substantial industry placement 

T-levels are, fundamentally, about preparing young people to succeed in the workplace.  Qualifications and curricula that reflect the needs of employers are necessary but not sufficient to realise that purpose. That’s why T-levels will also include a substantial work placement – more than 300 hours in a workplace for all students. This compares to an expectation of more like 70 hours for analogous current programmes. Employers stepping up to offer placements of that duration and in the large numbers that will be required is crucial to the success of T-levels – for government, students and for employers. Work placements will include activities that are formally assessed as part of students’ programmes; ie they’re serious, substantial parts of the T-level experience.

They’ll provide a structured route to higher education and work

Another longstanding challenge in vocational education is the need to create structured, sensible progression pathways that support individuals to continue their learning and progress in their career. Without those pathways, there is a risk that individuals stall for want of a learning opportunity that builds on what they’ve done and prepares them for what’s next.  

The introduction of T-levels will take several big bites out of this issue. First, T-levels will attract the same Ucas points as three A-levels. Second, universities are being actively engaged in the development of T-levels to ensure they equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to progress into relevant higher education programmes. Third, and crucially, T-levels are closely aligned with the apprenticeship offer in the relevant sector – meaning students who complete a T-level will be brilliantly placed to progress into apprenticeships at level 4 and above.  

When you get into the detail of it, this stuff is complicated – so we shouldn’t expect it to work perfectly from the outset, but we do seem to have the clearest framework for managing progression that we’ve seen in a long time.

They’re being phased in from September

The rollout of T-levels is a serious piece of implementation work for the government. Creating a completely new set of qualifications, designing new assessments in consultation with employers, schools, colleges and universities, supporting hard-pressed schools and colleges to prepare for delivery of a very different type of programme, and working with employers to build understanding of what is basically a new skills currency, is a big task.

That’s why T-levels are being rolled out over several years, starting this autumn. T-levels for sectors including education, childcare, construction and design will begin teaching this autumn – with the first students completing programmes in the summer of 2022 (pandemics and other unforeseen crises permitting, of course). Other sectors will follow, with digital, health and science sectors coming onstream next autumn. All sectors will be covered by autumn 2023.

As HR grapples with the many short, medium and long-term implications of Covid for their organisations, keeping a watchful eye on qualification reforms that won’t see young people land in the workplace until at least the summer of 2022 might seem an easy thing to deprioritise. But if we’re serious about building a vibrant, post-Brexit, post-pandemic economy, we need desperately to care about what we’re teaching young people. What we teach them today is what we prepare for the world to become a decade on. 

Matt Hamnett is founder of MH+A, which is currently working with NCFE to lead the development of six of the first 10 T levels

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