Reform should be a marathon not a sprint - CACHE Director Julie Hyde’s response on T level developments

Date: 31 May 2018

Like many in the sector, my Bank Holiday weekend was spent digesting the latest developments on the Government’s plans to introduce T levels.

The Department for Education (DfE) Permanent Secretary’s ministerial direction last Thursday, setting out his concerns about the feasibility of delivering the first T levels by 2020, was extremely telling. Described as “the nuclear option”, its very use tells you all you need to know about where we are with these crucial reforms.

Frankly, it isn’t surprising that it has come to this. For months, voices across the FE sector and employer groups have repeatedly expressed concerns about the short timelines for delivery and the very real risk that without more time and thought, T levels could be next in a long line of unworkable vocational qualifications – abandoned as quickly as they were introduced.

But will this be enough to make the Government think again? So far, it seems not.

Indeed, since Thursday’s warning, the reforms have continued at pace.

The Government has confirmed that it will press ahead with the three routes for delivery in 2020. On Friday, the Institute for Apprenticeships released the outline content for these three routes, and launched a consultation on the content– alarmingly giving providers just a week to feedback – over half term no less! We were pleased to see that this deadline has been extended to allow more time to respond, but the timescale remains unusual for such an important policy.

On Sunday, the Government published its response to the consultation on the implementation of T levels. This recognises some of the key challenges and delays the roll out of all 15 T level routes to after 2022, which is positive. However, it does little to address the fears of those in sectors like education and childcare, which will still launch in 2020, with mountains of detail yet to be worked out.

To provide an example, the consultation response acknowledges the need to ensure that T level work placements are accessible for learners and proposes a bursary to support students on the first routes. This is extremely welcome, but the practicalities of ensuring that the placements give learners the experience they need for a career in their chosen route, goes largely unaddressed.  

A ‘one size fits all’ approach for placements in vastly different sectors simply will not work. For example, we would question how a young person studying childcare can gain enough practical experience to be ready to work in an early years setting, after just 45 days. Whereas, for other routes, we know a 45-day placement is regarded as excessive and unrealistic.

The Government also acknowledges the need to ensure that T levels offer learners routes into higher education, such as allowing learners to accrue UCAS points. It is now “considering” this, but has failed to make a definitive decision on the way forward. With time ticking, how long can such important decisions be delayed?

To put this into context, young people now in Year 9, considering a vocational route in construction, education and childcare or digital, would be expected to study T levels that do not yet exist. By rushing the reforms through, the Government is risking the future, not only of these young people, but of three hugely important sectors, crucial to our economy and society.

Overall, the consultation response underlines a fundamental lack of expertise in terms of qualification design. This is evident in the proposed grading system. Sector best practice is to develop the content for a qualification before determining a grading model and we have seen the Government doing just the opposite.

The proposed model also seems to add a new layer of complexity and we would question the decision to award two grades, distinguishing between a learner’s knowledge and technical skills. Do we not risk one element being more important than the other when employers are looking to recruit, rather than creating well-rounded, respected qualifications?

The lack of such expertise in qualification design and development is increasingly apparent and problematic as the introduction of T levels progresses.

We understand the need to run a fair and impartial procurement process to facilitate the new licensing model for T levels and to select a single awarding organisations (AO) to deliver each qualification. But this is just one part of a hugely significant raft of reforms and by focusing too much on one aspect of the Sainsbury Review’s recommendations, the Government has essentially ended up cutting AOs – the very experts they need – out of the reform process entirely, beyond the rudimentary consultation process.

We fully support the aims behind T levels and what to see them succeed. However, if the three routes to be introduced from 2020 are going to deliver, the Government must act quickly to make the reform process more open and transparent.

As a matter of urgency, it should also create mechanism allowing it to actively seek and heed advice from vocational qualification specialists, including AOs and particularly those with expertise in these three sectors, to get the qualification design right. Otherwise, Thursday’s warning is in very real danger of becoming reality.