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T-levels are a good thing but question marks remain

For too long our society has viewed technical education as being the poor relation of the more academic route. 

When it comes to 16-year-old school-leavers, going on to study A-levels is what success looks like and until we snap out of this damaging view, our economy’s core industries will not be serviced with the talented new entrants they are crying out for.

Indeed, this over-emphasis on academic education is one of the main reasons the UK finds itself languishing near the bottom of the productivity league table. 

Enter stage left the T-level – one of Lord Sainsbury’s many recommendations to the government in last year’s skills plan. What I really like about the new T-levels is that they’re going to simplify post-16 technical qualifications into 15 routes to industry, one of which is construction.

Employer confusion

There are currently around 13,000 of these technical qualifications, which makes it tricky for employers to know what any given qualification means in practice.

With the introduction of the T-level, the hope is that all construction employers will have a clear grasp of what the young person has been studying and what they will and won’t be able to do. 

“If the government can’t find the hundreds of thousands of work placements it needs for construction T-level students, what then?”

So how will the T-level work for construction?

Everyone will undertake a core first year and then go onto ‘specialise’ in a particular trade or occupation such as bricklaying or carpentry. This will be music to the ears of construction SMEs who need individuals with broad skills.

I know they will value young people taking this route all having a consistent understanding of things like health and safety and sustainability. I’m also pleased that employers will have a chance to shape the content of the core first year and the specialised second year.

As with the apprenticeship Trailblazers, these new T-levels must reflect what employers need onsite.  However, there is a but – and quite a significant one at that.

T-levels will rely on all of these youngsters being able to complete three months of work experience with an employer in their second year.

Work placement concerns 

Given that CITB statistics show the number of young people in construction-related further education far outweighs the number of apprenticeship places being offered by employers, are we confident that these opportunities will materialise en masse?

If the government can’t find the hundreds of thousands of work placements it needs for construction T-level students, what then? We owe it to our young people to ensure we can deliver on what we promise so this needs to be properly thought through. 

And how will T-levels work alongside the new apprenticeship Trailblazers?

“I just wish these policies had been developed in unison and not in silos as seems to be the case”

The chancellor wants T-levels to have parity of esteem with A-levels, but will the T-levels have parity of esteem with apprenticeships? 

Even if you aren’t immersed in skills and apprenticeship policy, you cannot have helped but notice that it’s been in a state of flux in recent years. Apprenticeship Trailblazers have shaken up standards and the apprenticeship levy and the digital apprenticeship voucher are about to shake up apprenticeship funding.

Add to that the T-levels and you can see that this government is serious about improving the image of vocational education and helping industries like ours tackle the skills shortage.

I just wish these policies had been developed in unison and not in silos as seems to be the case. However, it is now for the Federation of Master Builders and others to work with the government to ensure it gets these right.

With Brexit on the horizon, we can’t afford to get it wrong.

Brian Berry is chief executive of the Federation of Master Builders 

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