Is it really time for T levels?

After the high-profile shambles that has accompanied the A level and BTEC grading this year, the Department for Education (DfE) must be relieved that the next debacle likely to affect the same age group will at least be low profile. Few people seem to have heard that the new T levels (T stands for technical) are being launched in September in selected schools and colleges across England. It is of course just plain bad luck that a qualification which has as its centrepiece a work experience placement of at least 45 days is being rolled out during a pandemic and major economic crisis: such placements will be very hard to find. The problems of T levels are much deeper, however: they walk in the footsteps of failure.

To be fair to DfE, the stated objective of the T level reforms, just like their predecessors, is worthy. It is to provide for young people a route into skilled employment that does not close off the option of progressing to higher education. They are designed to mirror apprenticeships in that an apprentice spends 80 per cent of their time learning at work and 20 per cent off the job, whereas the T level reverses these proportions; but unlike an apprenticeship, they are focused on a broad occupational area rather than a specific role – construction, say, rather than bricklaying.

To call them ‘technical’ is a little misleading. They will offer a number of routes, including some – like  care or health and beauty – which are not normally thought of as ‘technical’, however worthy they may be. The word seems to have been chosen because it implies a higher status than ‘vocational’ or ‘occupational’, and status seems key to DfE thinking. It explains why they are positioned as equivalent to A level, which is also a little misleading. If one wants to progress to study a subject at the highest level, it is, in most cases, better to take A levels that are designed to do just that, rather than something that just doesn’t rule it out.

The fact is that T levels, like their predecessors, try to do two things at once, and will end up failing to do both. If the aim is to broaden the relatively narrow curriculum offered to our most able young people, then DfE needs to tackle A levels directly; if the aim is to give more young people the skills to progress to skilled jobs, it needs to focus on something new for those who lack options at 16+, not those already well served. We have been here before.

The predecessor most successfully to occupy the space claimed by T levels was perhaps the GNVQ (General National Vocational Qualification), which was introduced in 1990 and lasted, with diminishing support, to 2005. GNVQs were offered in broad occupational areas like T levels, and differed from A levels in relying heavily on teacher assessment. They suited many pupils but despite determined attempts by the education department to assert their equivalence to A levels, universities never fully accepted them, so they were scrapped.

Between 2000 and 2005 attempts were made to develop versions of vocational A levels, including the Advanced Vocational Certificate of Education (AVCE),  savaged by Ofsted in 2004 as being “neither seriously vocational, nor consistently advanced.”  Again the ‘gold standard’ of academic A levels remained the dominant choice of pupils, schools and universities. This led to the most radical proposals for reforming education at sixth form level – the Tomlinson report, which in 2004 proposed that existing A levels and new vocational units should both be subsumed into an overarching Diploma. The aim was to allow pupils to mix vocational and academic options, and to signal that both were of equal status.

It is telling that Tony Blair felt bold enough to launch a war in Iraq in the teeth of ferocious domestic opposition but did not feel bold enough to challenge the hegemony of the single subject A level. New 14-19 Diplomas were introduced in 2008, but for the vocational  subjects only; in fact they looked very similar to the current T levels. With A levels unchanged however, they failed to carve out a substantial role for themselves and were abandoned in 2013.

The sorry tale of attempts to ‘reform’ vocational education has wider lessons about the failure of public policy-making in England. Most obvious is a reluctance to listen to professionals, particularly those in the public sector. Closely linked is an apparent refusal to learn from the past; why should we expect T levels to be a success when they face exactly the same challenges as previous iterations of the policy?

In fact, there seems to be a wilful refusal even to learn from the present. The failure to implement an effective Covis-19 test and trace policy owes much to the deliberate side-lining of effective local authority public health services, in favour of an untested but apparently ‘world beating’ new system. Similarly, a wide range of valuable vocational qualifications delivered in further education colleges have repeatedly been ignored or threatened with abolition, in favour of a ‘big bang’ solution.

Instead of talking about a cull of existing vocational qualifications, which has been another recurring feature of skills policy, government should show a little humility and build on what already exists. There are many vocational qualifications offered in colleges, from the better known BTECs to those developed by smaller and more specialised awarding bodies. Their designers don’t set out to engage in a futile battle with A levels over status; rather they seek to meet the needs of a sector by listening to teachers and employers, and developing appropriate curricula and assessments. It doesn’t make for dramatic headlines, but it works.