Halfway through the Summer Term and the further education sector continues to be pretty eventful! Making sense of the changes that have recently been announced is quite challenging, as the latest changes published regarding technical education post-16 come on top of the changes already in play for Apprenticeships.
There is no doubt that, as part of the plans associated with the decision to exit the European Union, there needed to be some changes to the provision of technical skills training. The assumption that fewer skilled migrants would be available to meet the needs of industry needs a plan to ‘grow our own’. The problem is much broader than this though. The demand for skilled workers is only partly about new jobs, fuelled by economic growth, the rest of the skills gaps are gradually appearing from the retirement of current employees where there is no ‘pipeline’ of skilled workers following them. The notion that people will need to work for longer is as much about lack of skilled replacements as it is about personal financial pressures.
The latest flurry of activity seems to have much more energy than past proposals. This probably has a lot to do with the government finally backing an initiative with the funding to make it possible. The Spring Budget announced an additional £500m per year for advanced technical education, aimed at supporting skills development for those 50% of young people who do not follow the ‘traditional’ route to skilled employment – studying for A levels, then attending University to achieve the prize of graduating in their chosen field. Of course, many of those who follow this route end up on a very different career pathway than their qualification might have suggested.
For years many of those choosing employment over further and higher education have ‘worked their way up’ and studied part time over an extended period, to achieve their career goals; goals that have formed and developed over time rather than being clear from the outset. The funding for Technical or ‘T’ Levels intends to provide a new and valued alternative route to ‘A’ Levels for those young people who do not relate to academic study, who want to ‘get their hands dirty’ by experiencing challenging technical education from the start of their post-school life. The key word used here is ‘challenging’. These proposals will really be challenging. The new qualifications will require up to 25 hours per week of learning time and a work placement lasting for 3 months over the 2-year duration of the programme. In some cases, doubling the time students typically spend on their studies.
This all sounds great. Where do I sign-up you might say. OK, hold on a minute. Changing the face of post-16 education is not something that can happen overnight. Although the A Level route is not changing, by far the majority of post-16 school leavers do not study for A levels. It will take some time and a lot of work before anyone is ready to take the first students onto T Level programmes. The first of the new funding from government arrives in 2018/19, with just £60m allocated. This rises to £155m in 2019/20, reaching the full £500m by 2022. That is 5 years away if nothing changes following the impending general election – remember, the T Level approach has been broadly accepted by both of the main parties. We don’t yet know how many T Levels there will be – there are around 90 A Level subjects and we do know that there will be 15 ‘groups’ of T Levels – matched to technical occupation sectors – but each of these is likely to have several T Level qualifications. Each T Level will be aligned to an occupational standard, the same standard used to support the apprenticeships for that area. These are designed by employers to meet the needs of their business. But what about those with future-facing aspirations? Wind the clock back 10 years and consider ‘Hybrid Vehicle Technician’ or ‘Domestic Solar Panel Engineer’. How many other jobs that don’t yet exist are in the future of those leaving school in the next 5 years? We can’t ignore this. The focus needs to be on building underpinning and transferable skills as well as those specific to the occupational standards of the day.
Students may also need to broaden their horizons. Providing the training resources and infrastructure to support these new ‘T’ Levels will be enormously expensive. For example, an engineering ‘T’ Level will need workshop space, a wide range of specialist equipment, access to materials to work with, not to mention teachers with the specialist skills required to support the knowledge and experience acquisition for the students. This means that it will be impossible for a single College to provide ‘T’ Levels in all 15 occupational areas. There will be a need for specialism and collaboration on a level never seen before, to ensure that there is the breadth of provision available, matched to the needs of local industry and also matched to the future aspirations of those who consider themselves as potential global citizens.
Preparations nationally, regionally and locally are already beginning. However this pans out, this is a fantastic opportunity for young people and the most significant step forward in post-16 education for decades.