Government turns screws on schools and academies to promote technical education

17 Aug

I        What are the T Levels?

On 11 October 2017, the then Education Secretary, Justine Greening, announced the launch of the first three T (Technical) levels in September 2020. Delivered by a small number of providers, they will be

  • Childcare and Education (Education Pathway);
  • Digital (Software Applications Design Pathway); and
  • Construction (Building, Services and Engineering Pathway).

In September 2021, the six T Levels, which will join the first three, are

  • Legal, Finance and Accounting (Full Route);
  • Childcare and Education (Full Route);
  • Digital (Full Route);
  • Construction (Full Route);
  • Engineering and Manufacturing (Full Route); and
  • Health and Science (Full Route)

The remaining five, which will take off in September 2022, are

  • Hair and Beauty (Full Route);
  • Agriculture, Environment and Animal Care (Full Route);
  • Business and Administration (Full Route);
  • Catering and Hospitality (Full Route); and
  • Creative Design (Full Route).

A small number of providers will offer the first three qualifications from 2020.  Selected providers will deliver the six priority areas (see above) the following year.  The vast majority of providers will offer T levels by 2024.  The government intends to confirm who these providers will be in Autumn 2018.

II       Technical Studies: the Cinderella of Education

We in the United Kingdom have a problem with technology, which, in our educational system is Cinderella to her academic step-sisters, the A Levels.  To understand why, we must go back into history.

Sir Bernhard Samuelson, MP for Banbury and the son of a Swiss-German engineer, headed up a Royal Commission on technical instruction in the 1880s. He was the son of a Swiss-German engineer, who was a pioneer of the dual system of apprenticeship.   Sir Bernhard was charged with persuading the Treasury about the merits of his plans to give technical education the status that it deserved at a time when there was not much enthusiasm to provide the resources needed.   Accordingly, the mandarins (civil servants) had the then Chancellor agree to imposing a tax on whisky production to help local authorities achieve Sir Bernhard’s aims.

This was at a time when the Iron Chancellor of Germany, Otto von Bismark, was funding an expansive network of vocational schools in his country, many of which exist till today.    It wasn’t surprising, consequently, when Britain became the object of the joke of not being able to organise quality vocational training from a booze-up in a brewery.

The T levels initiative has been the brainchild of the Sainsbury Review 2016.   Sainsbury’s working group had found the existing vocational qualifications too confusing besides not providing young people with the necessary skills to succeed if not excel at work.  Altogether, £60 million has been made available this financial year to prepare for the launch of T levels.  This will rise to £445 million in 2021-22 and eventually to £500 million by the year following.

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, told The Times Educational Supplement: “The new T levels will need to fight hard to gain recognition and to be valued, but this announcement is a good first step. I look forward to working with the government on developing the pathways from level 2 through levels 3, 4 and 5 which are needed for success.”

Neil Carberry, managing director for people policy at the CBI, added: “Businesses will be encouraged by the positive progress on the introduction of T levels, though there is still much for companies and the government to address together. It’s important that these new technical routes are woven into the wider education system from the start, to ensure they are respected and are seen to have the same quality as A levels.”

III     Developing parity of esteem

It will take a shift in the mindset of the nation to enable technical/vocational qualifications develop parity of esteem with the academic.  However, as Confucius said: “Longest journey is achieved when man decides to take the first step” – perhaps the most difficult one to take.   The government is doing so with technical education.  We keep our fingers crossed and there is no reason why we should not succeed in a nation where we have produced the following greats.

  • Sir Michael Faraday, the British inventor of the dynamo and industrial design engineer.
  • William Robert Grove, who developed the Grove cell using zinc and platinum electrodes exposed to two acids and separated by a porous ceramic pot. He invented the first incandescent electric lights which were later perfected by Thomas Edison.
  • Sir Tim Berners Lee, British engineer and computer scientists best known as the inventor of the World Wide Web.
  • Sir James Dyson, the British inventor, industrial design engineer and founder of the Dyson company who is best known for inventing the dual cyclone bag-less vacuum cleaner.

IV     The failed tripartite system

Sir Rab Butler, former Education Secretary, promulgated the Education Act 1944, which sought to establish a tripartite system, by giving equal status to grammar (for the academic), secondary modern (for those who failed their 11+ tests) and technical schools.  Much later, the government introduced a smorgasbord of diplomas for young people – the 14-19-year-olds.  These were ditched by the coalition government.  England has not been short of good intentions, but that has been the way to our vocational/technical “hell”.

We are in the lower quartile of the 35 countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) in technical skills.   Damian Hinds, the Education Secretary and Anne Milton, the Skills Minister are now charged with making T levels a success.   According to Tom Bewick, Chief Executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, they will need to ensure that their civil servants pay attention to three key issues.

First, they will need to draught in “the widest possible expertise from the qualification and assessment community” to bid in delivering the T levels.  The Federation of Awarding Bodies wrote to Anne Milton “about a consortia-led approach to bidding, including some imaginative ideas about how a reformed single licensing regime could help to minimise the risk of a major collapse”.

Second, government must send a strong message to parents and their children and convince them “to see T levels as a ‘gold standard’ on a par with A levels. Beyond the Westminster bubble, there is next to zero awareness of what these technical education reforms are trying to achieve”.  Winning hearts and minds with a national marketing campaign will be a challenge.   The sooner this begins, the better.

Bewick is concerned that the government has not set national minimum entry requirements for T levels, which he states in The Times Educational Supplement, “may sound sensible in terms of social mobility, but there is a danger that T levels could quickly become stigmatised as a ‘sink scheme’ for the less able”. If the first cadre of students in 2020 did not include some high achievers at 16+, the qualification will be seen as being fit for “other people’s children”.

Third, quality work placements for T level students must be made available.  “Britain has a poor record of education-business partnerships at the local level. There is a need, therefore, to invest heavily in a network of sub-regional and local brokerage bodies to help match T level students to the available work placement opportunities,” he wrote.

IV     Dyson Institute of Technology

Meanwhile, the Dyson Institute of Technology in Tetbury, Malmesbury, Wilshire, SN16 0RP, is blazing a trail in the development of T levels.  Established by Sir James Dyson, he writes on the website: “My attitude has always been to take on high-potential young people, give them immediate responsibility and mentor them through.  It’s not an easy option to choose, but that’s why we are developing some truly exceptional engineers.”

Perhaps, others in industry will be lured into taking a leaf from his book.

 

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