Vocational studies and T-Levels: what will be different this time around?

By Claudia Sumner

Friday 9 February 2018

As the issue of skills rises up the educational agenda and the number of 18-year-olds going to university falls, the Government is driving through one of the biggest shake-ups in the English qualifications system for years. The introduction of new ‘T levels’ is designed to help tackle Britain’s productivity challenge and to raise the profile of technical education. They will also replace the plethora of vocational qualifications currently on offer in each technical area with just one recognisable qualification type.

T levels will offer students a combination of study and ‘on the job’ learning, and are intended to equip young people for the modern workplace. Offering direct experience of the world of work is vital to ensure that young people understand the range of options available to them, and to help them make the right choices about the career paths on offer. Work placements are at the heart of the new T levels, but reviewing and monitoring the quality of such placements will be challenging. Our research on work experience suggests that creating work placements directly linked to the content of each T level programme will play a key role in providing students with a high quality experience, as will the college monitoring and support systems which safeguard the quality of the placement and enable students to get the most out of their experience.

Employer buy-in will be crucial to the success of the new qualifications and it is vital that the Department for Education guides colleges to provide support to employers to overcome perceived barriers to hosting work placements, such as the need for DBS checks, health and safety issues and insurance cover. NFER’s How to provide meaningful experience of the world of work for young people as part of 16 to 19 study programmes’ top tips guide for senior leaders and colleges, identifies several ways of supporting employers to provide work experience. These include proactively engaging with the needs of local employers and working in partnership with them to prepare young people before they begin their work experience. These same techniques could be used for work placements.

Vulnerable young people, including those with learning difficulties and disabilities, or those at high risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment of training), need additional support to reach their potential and succeed in their studies. We found that the most effective colleges invest in procuring appropriate work experience and offer one-to-one support to help young people travel to and from a place of work, as well as offering guidance as to what will be expected of them while they are there. Investing in young people maximises their chances of succeeding in their chosen path.

If the Government is serious in its commitment to fostering social mobility, it must ensure that all young people have access to high-quality, impartial careers advice and well-informed teachers. Mentors and careers advisors can help all young people make the choices that are right for them. Students who rely exclusively on family and friends for advice risk having their own ambition curtailed by the experience of those closest to them.

T levels provide a much needed opportunity to ‘rebalance’ (in the words of Education Select Committee Chair, Robert Halfon) the qualifications system. Their success will depend on employers rising to the challenge and being more deeply involved in training than has been the case until now, and young people (and colleges, teachers and parents) being aware of this brand new qualification and the prospects it offers.

The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has submitted a response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the implementation of the T level programme, which can be found here.