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sue andrews

KIS Finance

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Will T levels solve the UK skills gap?


T Levels are being positioned by the UK government as a vital educational overhaul that will better prepare young people for the fast-changing technology-driven world of tomorrow. But will these new technical qualifications be all they're cracked up to be?

From September 2020 the launch of T levels will give 16 year olds a new option. Those not wanting to take A levels will have an alternative to the routes currently available to them.

Positioned as a potential hybrid between A levels and apprenticeships, T levels have been designed to fit the current gap in technical qualifications in the UK. But will this latest reincarnation take off and provide a real alternative for those wanting to progress their career in a technology-based sector?

Are T levels really something new?

While the Government is calling T levels a “revolution in technical education” that will drive a “world class technical education system”, you could be forgiven for thinking that we’ve seen this all before. The similarly named Tech Levels have been on the scene for some years. These are also level three vocational qualifications, offered by organisations such as BTEC and City & Guilds, covering a wide range of areas, including accounting, mechanical engineering and plumbing.  

So how do the proposed new T levels differ?

The general idea behind the introduction of T levels appears to give 16 year olds a real choice about their future. Under the current system those who are not academically minded have had alternative options, but none have really held the same prestige as A levels.

However, the drive behind T levels is to develop a technical qualification that will be regarded as of equal value to traditional A levels.

How will T levels work?

From September 2020 post GCSE students will be able to opt to take a T level qualification, initially in one of three routes. The first set of courses on offer will be digital (software applications design), construction (design and planning) and education & childcare.

In 2021, 22 more courses are due to be launched covering a variety of areas, including finance & accounting, engineering & manufacture and creative & design.

The key question to ask is whether employers will recognise T levels as a genuine alternative to A levels.

Each T level will require the student to choose a ‘route’ e.g. engineering & manufacture. They then choose a ‘pathway’ and then a ‘specialism’ to take them to a particular role. In other words, the aim of a T level is to prepare young people for a specific job.

How do T levels differ from apprenticeships?

While the same standards will underpin both T levels and apprenticeships, T levels are classroom based. They will, however, involve a three month practical placement as well as involving study towards relevant English, numerical and digital skills.

The intention is that those achieving a T level will then be equipped to move onto a skilled job, a higher or degree level apprenticeship or higher technical education such as a technical degree.

Will employers recognise the value of T levels?

The key question to ask is whether employers will recognise T levels as a genuine alternative to A levels. This really is a crucial point if the new qualifications are to gain any form of traction in the coming years.

Without employer buy in how many 16 year olds (and their parents) will be willing to take the risk of abandoning more traditional routes for this new alternative?

In the context of Brexit, the government needs a workforce with the right skills to support a rapidly changing economy.

The fact that leading employers in construction, along with organisations like Lloyds and IBM, have been involved in the design and co-creation of the new qualifications may go some way to allaying fears in relation to their practical relevance.

In the same way that some employers have failed to recognise the value of apprenticeships when compared to academic qualifications, T levels could be seen as a way to bridge the gap. While requiring less input from employers than having an apprentice, the three months’ compulsory industry placements will mean that students gain genuine work experience. And if this element can be successfully delivered then T levels may be of more relevance than A levels in real world.

Why might T levels still flounder?

When it comes to the crunch, will T levels actually take off or will they just be another in a long line of programmes that come and go? Certainly there has been a long lead into 2020 to allow time to get the content right. However there is still much cynicism in the sector over whether this is just another government initiative that won’t take off.

Some are quoting falling apprenticeship numbers as a sign that employers don’t value technical skills training, but how much of the decline in numbers is actually due to issues in relation to the levy, rather than a sign of the perceived declining value of apprenticeships?

The key hurdles facing T levels

The biggest challenge will be convincing students, parents and employers that T levels are on a par with A levels. This is primarily linked to historical academic snobbery in the UK, which has tended to regard technical skills as second class to academic qualifications.

Certainly the government is firmly in support of their introduction, with Theresa May stating that T levels will play a “vital part of our modern industrial strategy.” In a global economy, where the UK is currently falling behind other developed economies in terms of how many people have technical education, it’s clear there’s work to be done.

In the context of Brexit, the government needs a workforce with the right skills to support a rapidly changing economy.

Are T levels the answer?

But will T levels support the skills that we need to see? Education Secretary Damian Hinds defined T levels as providing the skills for “the jobs of tomorrow” but is that right?

The question remains as to whether the advent of T levels is a big enough change to genuinely prepare the workforce of the future, or whether it’s just the government tinkering with the current system.

We need to adequately prepare today’s young people for the challenges that the future will bring, from artificial intelligence to automation. Whether T levels will be an effective part of that solution remains to be seen.


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sue andrews

Business and HR Consultant

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