T for trouble

by Tim Kiek
03 Sep 2018
T for trouble

The idea of any educational reform being straightforward and uncontroversial is quixotic in the extreme; however, T-levels (pages 36-37) seem to have been particularly bedevilled by problems. One such was a threatened legal challenge (subsequently dropped) made by the Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) relating to concerns over proposals to adopt a single awarding body for each qualification, and fears that 2020 represents an unrealistic timetable for the first wave of the procurement process. This came after skills minister Anne Milton, the person tasked with rolling out these reforms, in a move analogous to Elon Musk publically opting not to be driven by a Tesla in autopilot mode until nagging safety issues have been resolved, bafflingly confessed she would advise her own children against sitting the T-levels for “at least a year”. Another problem came in the disquietude voiced by sector leaders over the decision to hold examinations in the summer and at no other time of year. The FAB believes it represents a “significant capacity risk for the whole exam system” as it means students will have to wait a whole year for retakes. It also believes such rigidity is “not appropriate for the more vocational-style assessment that will be required for the occupational specialisms”.

Whether a rapprochement between the multifarious parties involved will be reached in the limited time available remains to be seen. History tells us no. History also tells us that T-levels will almost certainly be destined for the same ephemeral fate as other recent ‘big education’ ideas such as diplomas. This is because they will mainly be rolled out in further education colleges – the ‘Cinderella sector’ of the education system (as they have been termed for reasons I need not elaborate upon) – and thus perennial concerns still apply. Where is the money going to come from? Is there the requisite level of didactic expertise available to actually teach these qualifications? How can such profound reforms be rushed through in uniform, peremptory fashion in a sector which is characterised by its lack of uniformity? And where are the students coming from in an era where schools are fighting tooth and nail to retain their post-16 students as austerity bites and funding dwindles away?

Problems don’t just emanate from the FE sector though; just as with the new apprenticeship standards, T-levels have been designed in collaboration with a small group of employers leading to two major causes for concern. One is whether employers not involved in the institution of the T-levels will be happy to recognise them. The automotive industry is a case in point – you would struggle to find an industry harbouring a more catholic range of skills and multiplicity of job-types. The other concern is employer capacity. T-levels, the new apprenticeship standards, and the numerous requests for work experience coming from schools and colleges all place employers under an intolerable burden. Larger employers in the automotive industry may be able to cope, but the industry is predominately comprised of SMEs who will struggle.

Vocational education is a byzantine landscape, somewhat inevitably, so surely all reforms should be designed to try and mitigate its natural complexity. It seems unlikely T-levels will do this, especially given their similarity to the new apprenticeship standards. Arguably T-levels represent no more than an attempt to rebrand apprenticeships so as to remove the stigma that is unfortunately attached to them – but a corollary of this could be to inculcate further the perception that apprenticeships are for those who are less able...

And a footnote: these are just the ‘mechanical’ concerns. Thinking in a broader educational context, as we rush with stomach-churning alacrity into a world of automation and AI, a world which seems hell bent on destroying vast swathes of the traditional vocational jobs T-levels enshrine, do they represent a solution for the future, or one for the educational needs of generations past?

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