Paul Carbert, policy adviser, North East England Chamber of Commerce sets the scene for technical education reform and the new T levels, outlining what they mean for businesses.

THE development of our region’s future workforce has never been more critical with skills gaps highlighted regularly as a major concern for manufacturers. There have been moves over the past couple of years to help support companies to train young people in the most effective way and also give those potential employees the very best start to their careers.

T Levels will provide a technical alternative to A Levels for 16 to 18 year olds with a focus on practical, work-related skills. The T Level programmes will be taught over 2 years, including a mandatory work placement in industry for at least 45 working days and a final assessment. Students will have a choice of providers - typically a College, Sixth Form, or independent training provider - and the Department for Education has committed additional funding for providers to deliver the additional teaching required for T Levels.

The course content for T Levels will be designed by groups of employers and aligned with the 15 technical routes identified by the Independent Panel on Technical Education, chaired by Lord Sainsbury. These routes include groups of occupations and are intended to cover all jobs that require technical skills and training. Both T Levels and apprenticeships will be based on the same standards for their relevant occupations, with the content approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships (IfA).

The T Level routes will be rolled out in stages, with a small number of providers delivering some pathways within Digital, Construction, and Education and Childcare in September 2020. In the North East, Gateshead College and New College Durham will be among the first providers to deliver T Levels.

Further routes will follow in September 2021, and all routes will be launched by September 2023. This is later than originally planned, as under the original timetable teaching on the first routes was due to begin in 2019 with all routes in place by 2022.

There is clearly come concern among civil servants within the Department for Education that meeting this timetable will be challenging. In May 2018, the Permanent Secretary wrote a letter to Secretary of State Damian Hinds MP advising that the launch be deferred until 2021, and requesting a formal written direction. This is a rare step for the civil service to take. The Secretary of State responded with a letter stating that it was his intention to press ahead, in effect accepting that he would be accountable for the decision, and not the Permanent Secretary.

The debate about the capacity of the Department for Education to deliver these reforms is significant, particularly in light of the criticisms of the apprenticeship reforms made by businesses and training providers. However, there is no question that the greater focus and investment in technical education is needed. A report published by the Independent Panel on Technical Education in April 2016 highlighted that the UK has a productivity gap of around 30 percentage points with some of our international competitors; businesses face a chronic shortage of people with technician-level skills (Level 3 and 4); and the technical qualifications system is overly complicated, lacks employer input, and is regarded as inferior to academic qualifications by many parents and teachers. T Levels are also a key policy in the Government’s Industrial Strategy.

Ministers and officials have been keen to promote opportunities for businesses to play a role in the technical education reforms. Firms can join T Level Panels, which will develop the content for T Level programmes; and Route Panels, which manage the occupational maps for each technical education route and oversee the work of the Trailblazer Groups for apprenticeships and T Level Panels. To date, many of those involved represent large, national employers, and it has proved challenging to engage and collect feedback from SMEs.

In an attempt to address this, the Chamber held a consultation event in partnership with Gateshead College on 9th May, at which members heard from the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships about the plans for the rollout of T Levels. The main topic of discussion was the mandatory industry placement, and members raised a number of concerns about the availability of placements in the North East and the reception of T Levels by students and parents.

Many of the members present were sceptical that the number of industry placements available in the North East would be sufficient to meet demand. In sectors such as Media, Broadcast and Production, one of the career pathways under the Creative and Design route, there are currently few career opportunities in many parts of the region. It is not clear what will happen if T Level students start a course and are unable to secure an industry placement.

With only two years before the first T Levels will be offered to students, getting the right careers advice in place and having a marketing strategy for parents will be key to their success. The North East has made some excellent progress in this area in the past couple of years, with the success of the North East LEP’s Good Career Guidance pilot and the launch of Tees Valley Careers backed by funding from the Tees Valley Mayor’s devolved investment funds. It is vital that information about T Levels is given to schools as soon as possible, as students in Year 9 this year will be the first to be given the option at 16.

The availability and reliability of public transport will also be important to make sure that young people can take up work placements. The Department for Education will need to work closely with the Department for Transport and local transport authorities to manage this.

A Work Placement Capacity and Delivery Fund is in place to support providers with arranging work placements. Pilot schemes running in the North East will help to identify how firms can use this funding. The remit of the National Apprenticeship Service will also be expanded to provide a “one stop shop” for advice and support for employers, although it is as yet unclear if this will include dedicated staff located in the North East.

Looking at the positives, T Levels do provide another opportunity for building strong connections between education and industry. One business at our consultation event highlighted the possibility of using T Levels to change their recruitment process and attract a more diverse group of applicants. Gender balance and social mobility can’t be addressed through apprenticeships alone as they can be used to train existing staff.

Ultimately, there are several factors that will contribute to the success of T Levels: improved careers guidance, the quality of teaching, availability of work placements, and buy-in from young people, parents and employers. Our biggest concern is that the timeline for introducing T Levels will not allow for all of these to be fully addressed before students take them up. Negative media stories or early failures could make the scheme unpopular and unviable.

The Chamber will continue working to support members to collaborate on work placements, and promote the views of North East businesses as the T Level programmes are developed.

The 15 technical routes are:

• 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