Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, outlines what will be required to ensure the success of T Levels, including high standards and clarity of purpose, calling on stakeholders to work together to ensure that those principles are upheld.
This article first appeared in Issue one of our UK exam board OCR's Policy Briefing: Spotlight on T Levels
Somewhere in the depths of the DfE offices, civil servants will be working hard on a massive programme plan, covering all the projects, risks and contingencies associated with the implementation and roll out of T Level programmes. The DfE has responded to concerns by limiting roll out in the first year to a pilot of three of the eleven routes. It is still an epic ‘to do’ list and there isn’t much time in which to get it all done – the very first T Level students are due to start in September 2020. That’s real flesh and blood students with dreams and aspirations - they will have chosen a T Level because we will have told them they will get an engaging, stretching, learning experience and excellent job prospects. We can’t let them down, so it is imperative that everyone in the education and skills system does what they can to make sure those students get the very best.
Once the T Levels are launched, they have to be sustained. The stakes are highest for the T Level students themselves, but with the uncertainty of Brexit, growing skills shortages and the looming fourth industrial revolution, T Levels have a wider role to play in supporting the UK economy. Nobody wants to see a repeat of past failures in this sphere such as the 14-19 Diplomas.
So how do we get it right? Well, a lot of it is about painstaking programme management and dogged chasing down of risks but there are some higher level principles that need to be applied as well. Here are a few of them:
Be clear of purpose
T Levels are designed to address a shortage of technical skills in the UK labour market. They will enable T Level students to progress to further technical training and to find rewarding employment opportunities.
They are not intended as another route into higher education. Other qualifications have been designed to prepare students for undergraduate study but T Levels are driven by the disciplines of the workplace. It should be of no concern if some HEIs won’t recognise T Levels for access to some degrees, nor should T Levels be seen as just another way of collecting UCAS points.
Set the bar high
The bar should be set high for schools and colleges selected to deliver T Levels. They will need to be able to source teachers with a strong technical background; they will need to have access to state of the art equipment and to high quality industry placements. Student entry to T Level programmes should also be carefully controlled. Selection shouldn’t be on the basis of prior academic achievement, but prospective students should be clear-eyed about what will be expected of them and the seriousness of the commitment they are making.
The demands of T Level programmes should also be fitted to the technical standards on which they are based. Nobody should see T Levels as a soft option or something for those who aren’t up to the rigours of an A Level.
Quality not quantity
A lasting quality technical education system can’t be built in a day. If, in the first years of T Levels, the numbers need to be kept small, so be it – an uncontrolled roll out could do irreparable damage. We should learn from the ill-fated ‘3 million starts’ target that was applied to apprenticeships.
Keep things under review
The first years of T Level delivery should be regarded as a pilot. With the proviso that the core purpose of T Levels is immutable, everything else should be subject to review and changes should be made where there is solid evidence that change is desirable. There should be no ideological or policy-driven sacred cows – whether that be in relation to externally set exams, the size and nature of the industry placement or any of the other design features of the prototype T Level.
Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater
A Levels and T Levels alone won’t serve the needs of all young people. There are many established qualifications for 16-19 year olds which are truly necessary. In our desire to make T Levels a success we should not neglect such qualifications and we certainly shouldn’t withdraw funding of any of them unless we are absolutely certain of the implications.
And finally... Get with the programme
Government, its agencies, regulators, employers, providers and many other stakeholders all need to pull together, respecting and understanding their respective roles and expertise. Now is the time to start building something that will serve those first T Level students well and set the platform for a bright future in technical education.
Head of Policy, OCR
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