by John Widdowson

The introduction of T levels promises to re-invigorate technical education at Level 3 for 16-18 year-olds. However, there are legitimate concerns about the future and funding of other qualifications at this level which are not within the T level family. 

T levels have stimulated a national debate about the role and purpose of technical and vocational education for young people. Indeed, the emerging distinction between what is defined as ‘technical’ and that which is seen as ‘vocational’ could point the way towards a new approach to work-related education for pupils aged 15 and 16.  

Barriers to reform 

This won’t be easy. There are increasing demands to review this stage so that education in the arts, music and other creative disciplines are included in an already packed curriculum.  

The lack of effective careers education and guidance in most secondary schools is well-documented but still not addressed. One major impact of this is to leave many of even the most able students with little choice but to play safe and opt to study a traditional academic programme of GCE A levels.  

Current students can study for qualifications such as the BTEC Tech Award, but uptake seems to be small. Such qualifications can suffer from poor perceptions on the part of students, parents and teachers, encouraged by their negative classification as ‘non-EBACC’ in the performance measure Progress 8.  

This implicit down-grading is further compounded when those schools and colleges offering vocational awards from 14 years often target them at lower performing non-academic students. 

Benefits of reform   

Vocational education can add value to the learning experience of all students aged 14-16.  

It can add relevance to the choices they will have to make about future careers post-16.  

The result will be students reaching the age of 16 better able to choose between the well -trodden path of GCE A levels, a high-quality Apprenticeship and the exciting opportunities offered by T levels and other technical qualifications. 

Road to reform  

Making a new range of vocational subjects available to younger students in schools could be a key part of the answer. Those with longer memories will recall previous attempts such as the Certificate of Pre-Vocational Education and General National Vocational Qualifications.  

Exploiting the distinction between ‘technical’ and ‘vocational’ education could be helpful.  T levels are very specific in their aims and in most cases identify very clear progression routes to jobs, professions and higher level study.   

Indeed, the complementary development of a new range of Higher Technical Qualifications should signpost a new high quality, high value suite of vocational and technical qualifications across a wide ability range. 

To prepare well, prospective students need access to clear information and familiarity with the employment sector they aspire to join. They need raised awareness of the need for personal skills and resilience as well as academic knowledge. 

A broad- based vocational curriculum available to students of all abilities has an important role to play. These courses will not aim to prepare young people for specific job roles.  

Instead, they will give a broad introduction to an employment sector, for example, Construction and the Built Environment or Health and Social Care.   

They will be designed to compensate for any lack of suitably qualified teachers by using a range of high-quality online learning materials, coupled with visits and guest speakers from business and industry.  

Given the pressure placed on employers for work placements on T level courses, which must take priority, work experience will not be required. Industry placements for teachers would be useful.  

Vocational courses should be given equal status to core subjects such as English and maths in measures such as Progress 8 and not seem to be an after-thought. 

And finally, we need a comprehensive system of independent information, advice and guidance at age 14 so all students can benefit from vocational education provided by schools and FE colleges. 

John Widdowson is a former college principal