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A qualified success: An investigation into T-levels and the wider vocational system

The introduction of T-levels is part of a wider ‘skills agenda’, which includes the reforms to apprenticeships that began in 2012. T-Levels, scheduled to start delivery in 2020, are two-year courses that aim to give students a technical alternative to A-levels at age 16. Each T-level consists of: a qualification that includes technical knowledge and practical skills; an industry placement of at least 45 days; relevant maths, English and digital skills; and workplace skills. The two most prominent attempts to introduce a new set of technical qualifications over the last 30 years – first, General National Vocational Qualifications (GNVQs) and National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs) in the early 1990s; and second, Diplomas in 2007 – ultimately failed. Both had considerable political backing and were supported by a sizeable financial investment. Recent government publications and senior officials involved in T-levels have repeatedly insisted that they have ‘learned from the mistakes of the past’. This report investigates whether the introduction of T-levels does indeed show signs of learning from past mistakes., The report begins with an exploration of two major initiatives that sought to reshape the world of vocational education in recent decades – GNVQs and Diplomas – with the aim of understanding why neither of them have survived to the present day. After providing a historical perspective, the next step is to understand whether the newly-proposed T-levels have indeed learnt from past mistakes or whether they are heading down the same path as their predecessors. Finally, once T-levels have been analysed in detail, a set of recommendations will be offered that seek to build a stable, rigorous and respected technical education system over the next few years., The conclusion of this report is that T-levels have the potential to make a valuable contribution to the UK education system, but this will only be realised if they are conceived, designed and delivered in the wider context of building a high-quality and sustainable technical education route. The author argues that one of the biggest mistakes made by Diplomas and GNVQs was that it was never clear how they were supposed to fit with, and operate alongside, other qualifications and programmes. Too many elements of the T-level reforms (particularly the distance between them and apprenticeships as well as the proposed licensing model) are likely to cut T-levels adrift from the rest of the 16-19 system. The end result of this will be that T-levels are left vulnerable to any changes in educational or political winds. The recommendations in this report describe a new path for T-levels that allows the Government to maintain the momentum of the reforms while simultaneously constructing a broader technical education system in which T-levels can play a central role.