The UK Government plans that new T-levels will provide an alternative for young people who would prefer vocational programmes to academic courses.  Cath Sezen is Senior Policy Manager at the Association of Colleges, and explains the benefits of the new programme. She also explores some of the challenges.

From 2020, England will introduce a new Skills Plan for technical education to address skills gaps in technician level jobs in industries such as engineering. 

The Skills Plan aims to provide 16 years plus students with a clear route to work. It divides technical occupations into 15 routes, 11 of which will be mainly college or training provider based and four which will be delivered through work-based learning. Each route will be divided into broad pathways which will have a common core followed by a specialisation year with an extended industry placement of up to three months leading to a Technical Level qualification (T Level) at level 3 (around A-level or Baccalaureate standard). Hours of study per year will be extended from the current 600 to 900. When students complete their T Level they will be able to progress to work, a higher apprenticeship or higher education depending on the occupation they wish to pursue. 

At the Association of Colleges, we are broadly supportive of the overall intention of the Skills Plan. Investing in and raising the profile of skills is welcome. Ensuring that key stakeholders (students, parents/carers and employers) are aware of the best route to a specific occupation can only be a good thing although comprehensive, impartial careers guidance will be essential.

But there are questions. How will the Government promote the concept of technical education? There needs to be a huge cultural shift for technical education to be seen as prestigious as the well-established academic route. One way the Government has started to do this is by announcing additional funding for the delivery of T-levels, but is this enough? 

Part of the additional funding and hours will be allocated to industry placements. Currently, students undertake a two-week work experience. Occupation specific placements will require far more employers to offer placements. Extended placements will also require a much planning to ensure that they are meaningful for employers and students alike while taking into consideration how they fit into the wider curriculum. The Government is investing money in supporting colleges to build capacity and pilot placements, but this is a huge shift in educational practice for both colleges and employers.

There are further questions about students who are not ready to embark upon a T Level, which for many colleges will make up around half of all 16 to 18-year-olds. The plan is that they can enrol on a transition programme to help them work towards the required entry requirements. For students with special educational needs, this may take longer than a year and that the most appropriate destination may be supported work or independent living. But details to date indicate that this programme will be funded for the current 600 hours per year and yet these young people are furthest away from work or higher education.

There are also still questions over the role of current qualifications, especially where there is no technical route, such as sport and performing arts, but where there are many employment opportunities.

The Skills Plan and T Levels are broadly modelled on technical education systems in other northern European countries where they have delivered outcomes for young people.  Let's hope they do the same thing here.

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