On the face of things, colleges might appear to be quiet places during the mid-summer months. In reality, the notion of a college ‘closing down’ for the summer is something that only lives in the memories of those who, like me, have worked in the sector for more than 25 years. The gap between the end of one year and the start of the next seems to get shorter each year and the changes that need to be implemented due to shifts in educational policy or technical modifications to qualifications to ensure that the students are learning the latest skills and techniques means that summer is now a busy time for college teachers and managers.
There was some speculation, following the recent general election, that the loss of an overall majority for the Conservative Government might cause a slow-down in the implementation of the Skills Plan and the Industrial Strategy or even a complete re-think but it does appear that the slightly re-shuffled cabinet have now started to pick these up again where they had been left. The new Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships, Anne Milton, has indicated that things might take a little longer than the original plan but I feel that this is more about the scale of the proposed changes rather than any delay resulting from the election.
A key part of these proposals are the inception of new ‘T Level’, technical qualifications. Although they don’t yet exist, they are intended to provide technical equivalents to the long-standing ‘A Level’ qualifications taken by those who follow a path of academic study at age 16. The challenge for those engaged in their design will be to match the coverage of knowledge and skills in the qualification to the requirements of the chosen technical pathway. Let me explain through an example. The general purpose of an A Level qualification is to demonstrate that the student is able to build their knowledge of a subject to a specified standard in two years. It thus shows that they are likely to be able to continue to build knowledge and understanding in this way at University and will, in all likelihood, be able to achieve the academic standard required to be awarded a degree. Does an A Level alone in Geography provide the knowledge and skills needed for the student to become a Geographer? Probably not. Is this the same then for a T Level? Let’s think about a typical technical subject – say electrical Installation. On leaving school a prospective T Level student wants to be an Electrician. You don’t need a university degree to be an electrician. What you currently need is an NVQ Level 3 in Electrical Installation and at least 2 years’ experience ‘on the tools’ as an Apprentice Electrician. Will the T Level alone in Electrical Installation provide the knowledge and skills needed for the student to become an Electrician? The answer here for me is; I don’t know. The T Level will be at the required level – Level 3, the same as an A Level. The T Level will include approximately 1,800 hours of training at college – compared to 360 hours for an A Level. The T Level will require 12 weeks of work placement; almost 450 hours. Is this enough to convince a potential employer that you are now a qualified Electrician? If it isn’t, then why do a T Level at all? Why not go straight for the Apprenticeship? Can the T Level programme simply become an apprenticeship you undertake through a college, for those unable to find an employer who is willing to fund their training? If this becomes the main purpose for T Levels, why would an employer choose to pay for an apprentice when the government will pay for the training anyway via the T Level programme.
Although we are still three years away from the full implementation of the new ‘T Level’ programme, there are many, many unanswered questions. I am excited by the prospect of college-based apprenticeships and some of these questions might be answered as the first T Level pilots start in 2018 and we start to gear-up for extended work placements using government support funding from April 2018. However this progresses, I am sure that students will benefit and skills levels will increase; especially important as we move closer to withdrawing from the European Union. The one thing that is equally certain, the summer holiday looks set to become even less of a holiday for FE colleges!