T-levels and the Skills Plan: how the NEU will fight for the education of all young people

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27 March 2017 by Janet Clark
Last July, the government announced the Skills Plan, a radical overhaul of technical (previously known as vocational) education.

In the Spring Budget, Phillip Hammond, Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced £500m to fully implement the Skills Plan by 2022. Whether this will be enough money is the subject of another blog. For now, I want to explain more about what is in store for further education over the next six years, and how this will impact the choices made by young people.

With the Skills Plan, the government accepted all the recommendations made by the Independent Panel on Technical Education which, Chaired by Lord Sainsbury, concluded a review of the sector last year. Upon implementation of the Skills Plan, young people will choose between two distinct pathways at the age of 16: academic or technical.  The technical education route will be college- and employment- (ie apprenticeship) based and will prepare individuals for skilled employment which requires technical knowledge and practical skills.

Young people choosing the technical education pathway will need to select one of the following 15 routes:

  • Agriculture, Environmental and Animal Care
  • Business and Administrative
  • Catering and Hospitality
  • Childcare and Education
  • Construction
  • Creative and Design
  • Digital
  • Engineering and Manufacturing
  • Hair and Beauty
  • Health and Science
  • Legal, Finance and Accounting
  • Protective Services*
  • Sales, Marketing and Procurement*
  • Social Care*
  • Transport and Logistics*

* Routes primarily delivered through apprenticeships

The full programme for each route will consist of a technical qualification, English and maths, digital skills and a significant work placement. Branded ‘T-levels’ over the past few days, the government envisages that this new system will raise the status of technical education, giving it long-awaited parity of esteem with academic A-levels. Bridging courses will also be available to make it possible to move between the two pathways. So far so good.

Read a little deeper into the government’s plans however, and there is reason to be a little wary of the Skills Plan. As with the apprenticeship reforms, employers will be at the heart of the system. The Institute for Apprenticeships (to be up and running in April this year) will have its remit expanded to become the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education from 2018. This organisation will be responsible for designing new level 2 and level 3 qualifications for the 15 technical education routes, and is currently convening employer-led panels to oversee this process.

ATL has long argued that employers should not be the primary consideration when developing skills (or indeed any) education programmes or qualifications. While employers’ skills requirements are an important factor, the needs of learners must be central. Furthermore, it is vital that the expertise of the FE workforce feeds into developing any new skills education systems.

I recently wrote a blog on ATL’s successes in securing workforce representation at each level of the Area Review process, as well as greater transparency around decision-making. The National Education Union, with its huge membership and greater resources, will be able to build on this success and be even more influential in ensuring that, with the Skills Plan, the pendulum for designing technical education does not swing too far in favour of employers.

Similarly, the National Education Union will have a crucial role to play in ensuring that learners have a genuine choice to make at the age of 16. The Skills Plan emphasises the government’s commitment to the EBacc as the curriculum to be taken by most (the target is 90 percent) students at Key Stage 4. With seven academic subjects forming the core of the EBacc, this means that the vast majority of young people will have limited, if any, opportunity to experience technical education in secondary school. How will this support young people in making an informed choice about whether their future lies in an academic or a technical route?

As a union that represents all education sectors, ATL is uniquely able to understand the opportunities and challenges faced by children and young people throughout their educational lives. The NEU will have an even greater presence at the Department for Education - that is now responsible for schools, colleges and universities. This will give us a much better chance of persuading government of the steps it needs to take to ensure that all young people have the information they need to make genuine choices when it comes to decisions that will affect the rest of their lives.