Over the years, there have been lingering doubts about the parity in the UK between the academic route (A levels) and technical education.
With a proliferation of regulated qualifications within the technical education system post age 16, the issue of clarity, currency and equivalence continues to mar the integrity of alternative options to A levels and other academic routes such as the International Baccalaureate. This has brought about a rethink, and the concept of a unified technical qualification with equal status to A levels has emerged. A unified technical qualification can also be benchmarked against more established technical education provision, like we see in the Netherlands.
Consequently, the UK education landscape is experiencing a period of broad and ambitious reforms which has brought about a pivotal change in the qualifications on offer after GCSE.
The government’s intention is to create a world-class, two-model qualification structure comprising a technical and academic element. The technical education accommodates two components namely, apprenticeships and technical qualifications. The latter is the unification of existing vocational and applied general qualifications, which is replaced by T levels.
T levels are two-year qualifications that can be studied by 16 to 19-year-olds after finishing their GCSEs, and are equivalent to three A levels. These new qualifications were first rolled out in September 2020, with Wave 1 comprising Construction, Design and Education and Childcare routes. The plan is to complete the introduction of all 24 routes and more than 80 pathways in Wave 5 by September 2023.
Over the two years of the T level qualification, or three years if the entry point is the T level transition programme (intended as a remedial year for those students who do not meet the requirements for direct entry), students are expected to complete three main components to achieve the award at level 3. These include a core theory - covering key concepts, theories, and principles; an occupational specialism which addresses skills and knowledge of a specific area chosen by the student and a work placement within a related industry.
Upon successful completion, students are open to several progression pathways and – just like their academic counterparts – they can access degree programmes in addition to higher technical occupations. These comprise apprenticeships and technical qualifications at levels 4 and 5.
The pilot of the Wave 4 T levels in September 2022 saw the launch of all the routes and pathways in business management, finance, accounting, and law. Students from the T level stream would be involved in the next recruitment cycle commencing in September 2023 and could be exploring the course options at ARU FBL as prospective undergraduates. Student numbers from this stream are unlikely to be significant in September 2024. This is because providers can continue to offer vocational and applied qualifications at level 3 due to the one-year funding extension granted in response to the outcome of the 2021 consultation on post16 reforms. But ahead of the planned cull of these qualifications, student numbers are set to rise steadily in subsequent years. However, it is worth mentioning that the recent and ongoing “protect the student choice coalition” petitions might open discourse around reinstating or extending the shelf life of these qualifications, but in my opinion, this might only lead to the creation of a limited suite of qualifications rebranded as alternatives to T levels.
Considering the above, it is imperative that key post holders within and beyond the FBL faculty begin curriculum dialogues and wider conversations regarding this prospect with a view to develop positioning and traction strategies for September 2024 and beyond.
My next blog on this series would explore some of these strategies and a possible communication plan.
By Rita Essien
Guardian News and Media (2017) 'T-levels' aim to improve technical education and improve UK productivity. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/mar/08/t-levels-aim-to-improve-technical-education-and-improve-uk-productivity (Accessed: 5 February 2023).
GOV.UK (no date) Introduction of T levels. Available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/introduction-of-t-levels/introduction-of-t-levels (Accessed: 5 February 2023).
Federation of Awarding Bodies (2020) Our full members. Available at: https://awarding.org.uk/our-members/ (Accessed: 5 February 2023).
GOV.UK (no date) T levels - the Next Level qualification. Available at: https://www.tlevels.gov.uk/ (Accessed: 5 February 2023).