Vocational qualifications: don’t turn off the tap to make T

Not a single person has taken a T-level yet and there are still no solutions to the vast challenge of finding enough employer support, but the Department of Education thinks the time is right to axe all alternative vocational qualifications.

Vocational qualifications have long been regarded as the low road of post-16 education compared to the more academic pathway of A levels and university. Too often they’re seen as what you do if you’re ‘not clever enough’, rather than being a positive choice. The most prominent, BTECs, suffer from this self-fulfilling depiction, but are nevertheless an important route into work and/or higher education for many, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds.

We all desperately want vocational qualifications to be regarded as a different and equally valid route, but replacing the tried, tested, popular, but admittedly flawed BTECs with untried, untested, and clearly flawed T-levels is like burning all your clothes because you’ve heard Primark is having a sale next month. In the meantime, you’re naked and what’s going to come along is probably not going to be all that great anyway.

T-levels have been designed with the best of intentions, but many issues surrounding them remain far from solved. We’ve been here before. BTECs, vocational A levels, GNVQs, National Diplomas, and so on and so on – these were all valiant initiatives that didn’t live up to the high hopes when tested by realities. Finding a gold standard for vocational qualifications is a path strewn with bodies. It’s not as if A-levels are a robust gold standard for academic qualifications, so it’s not surprising how much harder it is for a field with an even more battle-worn past.  

The iceberg

For me, the iceberg right in the path of T-levels, whose existence DfE seems reluctant even to acknowledge, is that there just won’t be enough employers willing to provide the necessary 45 days of work experience – even if the government were willing and able to throw money at the issue.

To employers the current offer is this: take on an untrained learner who will soak up management time, but not contribute significantly to your business’s productivity (unless they’re employed in something so menial it gives them no real experiential learning). You’ll get no money or tax breaks for helping out, but it may mean that, at some point in the future, there may be someone better qualified to work for you – or who you have helped train to work for your competitors. This point in the future may be within a couple of years (a long time in business) or, since T-levels are intended to be a better pathway to higher training and education than BTECs, if your contribution works as it should, it may not be until many years from now.

Even the most socially minded employer is likely to prefer to spend their limited resource of time and money supporting the far more attractive proposition of providing apprenticeships instead which provide a faster, more targeted way of plugging their gaps, where they actually employ the learner and dictate many of the terms of their training.

To scale up T-levels to even 10% of post-16 learners (let alone half) will mean employers investing in the additional provision of around 3.5 million days of work experience every year. It’s simply unrealistic to imagine this is going to happen without significant bribery – sorry, I mean financial incentives.

Even if I’m wrong (let’s hope I am) and employers don’t act as they always have in the past, then the provision of T-levels will depend critically on what employers exist within a small radius of where the learner is based and whether they operate in a sector appropriate to the 24 T-level subject areas.

In some areas – big metropolitan centres – there may be plenty of choice, but in the areas where the skills needs are most needed, almost by definition there isn’t an excess of employer capacity to get involved in training. Almost nowhere will be able to offer anything like a full range of T-level choices.  

Even if the government were proposing to throw money at the problem of incentivising existing employers (which they’re not), the problem of incentivising nonexistent ones is not resolved simply with investment.

Without this work experience component, learners can’t pass the T-level so schools and colleges can’t offer the courses without those relationships in pace. Of course, DfE (and the T-level regulator IfATE) could relax or rewrite the rules on whether work experience is strictly necessary and how much, but then T-levels will lose their key point of differentiation. We’d be better off keeping BTECs.

A stormy T-cup

I do understand why DfE thinks that if it allows the continued availability of alternatives to T-levels, then they’re not giving the new qualification every bit of backing that they can. However, I would argue that, if T-levels can’t rise above the competition as attractive and valuable qualifications because they’re genuinely a better choice, then making them the only choice will make them weaker not stronger.

This government is genuinely engaged in trying to solve the problems of ‘the other 50%’ (those who don’t follow academic pathways) and ‘the Cinderella sector’ (further education and technical colleges), but they won’t make vocational education right by making the same mistakes that got us here in the first place. Indeed, the danger – the brick wall towards which they are steering deliberately and at speed – is to undermine the very thing they hope to improve. 

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