Barnsley Chronicle Education Supplement: T Levels

The following appeared in the Barnsley Chronicle education supplement on 24th May:

Barnsley’s schools, colleges and training providers have faced more than their fair share of challenges lately, with government cuts hitting hard just as demand is rising.

Yet with the speed of economic change, we need to do more than ever to ensure that the next generation of Barnsley’s pupils, students and workers are supported to succeed.

That is a challenge that I’m delighted to see so many educational leaders in Barnsley tackle head on.

School leavers once faced a far narrower range of options. But the variety of jobs today mean we must offer a wider range of qualifications and learning to match.

I firmly believe that putting vocational and technical education on an equal footing with traditional academic routes is vital in doing so.

That’s why I welcome in principle the idea of T-Levels, a technical equivalent to A-Levels.

There is little doubt the need is there.

The Sainsbury Report into technical education concluded “there are serious problems with the existing system” which “fails to provide the skills most needed for the 21st century”.

The report warned of the need for “urgent action” and a “fundamental shift” if we are not to be left behind.

The Government has promised that T-Levels will be that shift.

A technical qualification designed alongside employers with specific industries in mind, with a mix of learning in classrooms and on-the-job experience, could open the door to better education and skilled employment for many more people.

And the addition of a general technical qualification could be vital for the many young people who reach 16 but don’t want to be restricted to either traditional academic education or one particular job.

But as ever, the devil is in the detail, and there is little of that. How, for example, will students cross-over to and from T-Levels from academic subjects.

And if T-Levels are made to compete with rather than complement A-Levels, they will likely get less take-up.

There are even more serious questions over the adequacy of funding, teacher provision, and employers taking on T-Level students for training in sufficient numbers.

T-Levels will require at least 45 days of work placement, and that’s quite some responsibility for an employer to provide, especially in areas like construction with obvious safety requirements.

Some placements will also depend on postcodes – as the new principal of Barnsley College suggested to me, it will be hard to train as a marine biologist with a placement in Barnsley! But the industries we do have on our doorstep won’t all have T-Levels ready to go.

So it’s clear that before their planned implementation by September 2020, there is much the Government needs to do and many fears it needs to allay.

T-Levels could be a way to prepare young people in Barnsley and across the country for a changing, challenging, 21st century economy.

But warm words to grab headlines are one thing, delivery is another.

Without Ministers following up their big promises with the right resources and implementation, it could easily become the latest in a long line of failed reforms; a failure our young people can ill afford.