This piece first appeared on FE News and was written by Ian Pretty (Collab Group) and Andy Durman (Emsi).
Our system of technical education is not working for employers or for learners. We have a system that is difficult to navigate and qualifications that do not train people in the skills that employers are looking for. That is why the reforms to turn 13,000+ post-16 technical courses into the 15 broad T-Level routes is so important . We need a system that is accessible, supports progression and leads people to stable careers.
If the reforms are successful, they could transform the landscape of vocational education and training in this country, to the benefit of learners and employers alike.
The need for an improved system of technical education is a pressing one. It is not only the fact that the system we currently have is confusing, both to learners and employers, but there are numerous pressing economic issues, such as our low productivity, skills gaps in key industries, and uncertainty around Brexit; these factors mean that we need to get much better at training home grown talent and aligning their skills to the needs of employers.
T-Levels represent not only the most far-reaching changes to the technical education system in decades, but also a fantastic opportunity to produce a system that is fit for the needs of employers, students and the economy as a whole. Yet, as with all such radical overhauls, there are a number of big challenges that are causing concern, and which need to be thought through carefully.
To address some of these issues and concerns, Collab Group and Emsi have teamed up to produce a position paper: “T-Levels: Employability in a Changing Economy.” The report, which we hope will play a part in influencing policy makers, examines four issues that will be critical to the success of T-levels. These are:
♦ Employability skills
♦ Local labour market alignment
♦ Work placements
♦ Student engagement.
Let’s look at these briefly in turn.
Persuading young people that the new qualifications are a viable alternative to A-Levels will depend at least in part on how colleges can communicate the skills that are embedded in the new qualifications, and that doing a particular T-Level will enhance, not restrict, their career prospects. Our report demonstrates how this can be done, by showing how routes and pathways can be mapped to employability skills and key competencies. This can then be used to show young people not only how a particular T-Level can help them gain sustainable employment in a related field, but what transferrable skills they will learn, which will make them employable in occupations not directly related to the T-Level they do.
Local Labour Market Alignment
Along with employability skills, one of the issues at the heart of T-Levels is that they should align well with local labour markets. This was made explicit in the Post-16 Skills Plan, which stated that the purpose of T-Levels is to create:
“A dynamic, high-quality technical option, which is grounded in engagement with employers, fits soundly with the rest of the system and is responsive to the changing needs of the economy.”
Our analysis shows how this can be achieved. With the 15 routes and 35 pathways having been mapped to occupation codes, this means that we can use local Labour Market Insight to identify how much demand there is for each one. Some of the data contained in the report is highly revealing, and to some extent counter-intuitive. It shows how important it is for each college to get to grips with related employer demand for T-Levels in their area, in order that they can create a curriculum that is responsive to the changing needs of the economy.
One of the most crucial elements of the T-Levels system is the work placements element, yet it is also one of the biggest challenges to overcome. The Department for Education has been clear that without work experience, there will be no certification, which is understandable given that the focus of the new system is on ensuring that young people have the right skills and are work-ready. However, acknowledging that the blanket requirement of a 45 to 60-day placement may be difficult to achieve across some routes is essential, and we are glad to see that the Government is now taking this into consideration by promoting flexibility in how this requirement is delivered.
The key to successful work placements is flexibility, and the acknowledgement that different sectors, and indeed different localities, will need to adopt different approaches. This will be particularly important when it comes to persuading employers to take on work placements, many of whom have signalled their reluctance to do so.
The other big challenge that we highlight in the report is that around student engagement. At the moment, few outside education and employment circles have heard of T-Levels. This is not surprising, given that we are still some years away from their full implementation, but it does mean that significant work will need to be done to ensure the T-Level “brand” gains currency with both learners and employers.
As we mentioned above, one of the ways this can be achieved is through emphasising the employability skills embedded within each route and pathway. In addition to this, the roll out of T-levels will need to be supported by a national publicity and promotional campaign, perhaps modelled on the apprenticeship “Get in Go Far” campaign. Key messages will also need to be put out, reinforcing the link between these qualifications and progression onto employment and higher-level study.
Ultimately, we are cautiously optimistic that T-Levels could become a big part of the solutions to the economic and work-related issues and challenges faced by the country, handling the issues we have highlighted carefully will be crucial in determining whether the new system will be successful or not. We hope that this paper will add to the debate, and that it will help to shape a T-levels system that will be of great benefit to all.
You can download a free copy of the report by clicking on the images above, or by clicking the button below.