Getting technical

post Fiona Aldridge

Over the next few weeks, young people across the country will be receiving their exam results. Tension will be building in households up and down the land. And this is not unjustified; educational attainment is becoming increasingly central to life chances.

At the Learning and Work Institute, we know that education is much more than simply the achievement of qualifications. Its also about gaining knowledge and skills, developing curiosity and passions, and understanding ourselves and the world around us. In recent years, we have also seen a growing focus on the role of education in preparing young people for the labour market.

The good news is that young people are better qualified and more likely to be in education than ever before. The not-so-good news is that while educational attainment is rising it is doing so less quickly and from a lower base than in many other countries.

The challenge has not escaped the attention of policy makers. There is cross-party consensus on the need to reform the educational offer for young people, and in particular to develop high quality technical and vocational options to sit alongside A-levels.

Having spent several years focusing on apprenticeship reform, the government has now turned its attention to the development of T levels. These are a two-year technical study programme for 16-19-year-olds to develop the knowledge and practical skills valued by industry as preparation for skilled employment. A key design feature of the programme is the inclusion of a substantial industry placement of between 45-60 days.

Our research with employers shows a positive appetite for the programme, and particularly for the industry placement. This is not surprising; almost two thirds (65%) of employers responding to the governments latest Employer Perspective Survey said that relevant work experience is a critical consideration in their recruitment, and that without it, many young people are poorly prepared for working life. The challenge, of course, will be to translate this attitude into activity, ensuring sufficient range and volume of high quality opportunities across the country.

The development and implementation of T levels on the current timescale (launching in 2020) is challenging. Ultimately this is a balance between ambition (there is no perfect time to launch) and practicality (making sure the programme is high quality). Get this wrong and we risk adding to the list of failed attempts to improve vocational and technical education.

There is lots of work to do to make T levels a success, and many issues still to be addressed. Employer-led content creation, licencing of awarding organisations, teacher training, and building confidence among young people and their parents in the programme to name just a few. Stepping back from the immediate design issues however, at the Learning and Work Institute we have been focused on some of the wider issues against which T levels need to be considered.

Firstly, as highlighted in the launch report for our new Youth Commission, we need a coherent educational offer, with a clear and well understood range of options that are valued by young people, their parents and employers alike. Young people need to understand how each of the options can support them to develop their career, with accessible information on the employment prospects and earnings of each. They also need to be confident that their choice of an academic or technical route at 16, will not limit their progression opportunities in higher level learning later in life.

Secondly, while our research shows that employers generally welcome the introduction of T levels, it also highlights that the greater demands being placed on them to offer work experience placements, traineeships, apprenticeships and T level industry placements risks creating confusion and employer fatigue. It is vital that we also present a coherent offer of opportunities and support to employers if we are to successfully harness their willingness and capability to invest in young people.

Thirdly, we believe that a good technical education should not be the sole preserve of young people but should be on offer to adults of all ages. Faced with the prospect of longer working lives, technological change and economic uncertainties, we need to ensure that high quality opportunities to upskill and retrain are available to all.

Although the government is understandably focused on the detail of T level development, we believe a wider focus on these issues is just as important. They are critical considerations too for Labours planned National Education Service. If our ambition is to ensure that education becomes a right enjoyed by all, then this needs to begin (though not finish) with a credible and coherent offer for young people, which is recognised and supported by employers, and creates a platform for continued learning throughout their lives.

This is how we make lifelong learning a reality.

Dr Fiona Aldridge is an Assistant Director at the Learning and Work Institute.

This article originally appeared in Fabian Review online (14 August 2018)