Young people need opportunities to develop their skills but, as the Sainsbury Review showed, the 17-30 year olds not progressing to university are not well-served. They face a confusing proliferation of qualification choices, many not understood by employers and some offering little economic return.
The Government’s solution is better alternatives to university – in particular, more technical and vocational routes. T levels, the consultation on which has just closed, are an important part of the Government’s plan.
However, a binary academic/technical divide at age 16 will make it harder for young people to progress through the technical route to university. This will create a cliff-edge for many 16 year olds, limiting their opportunities to develop (increasingly-important) higher-level skills. As such it will entrench the perception that A levels are everyone’s best choice to maintain a breadth of opportunity.
The Government wants to filter young people into an education suitable for them and to simplify the 16-19 education landscape. It plans to do this through a system consisting almost exclusively of A levels and T levels. T levels will ‘primarily … support entry to skilled employment in technical occupations’ and will constitute ‘transformational change … achieving parity of esteem between academic A levels and technical education routes.’(p.8 both).
This does seem appealing: A levels and then university for the academically-minded, T levels and then skilled employment for the technically-minded. But the plan is based, possibly unconsciously, on two highly debatable assumptions.
First, that 16 year olds fit neatly into ‘academic’ or ‘technical’ boxes. Many simply don’t know whether they are ‘academic’ or ‘technical’, others will change their minds, but most are almost certainly both. Young people’s abilities and aspirations are not linear or fixed at age 16.
Second, that university only suits ‘academic’ students. It might be true that most young people studying A levels want to progress to university. It is not true that young people studying alternatives, such as BTECs, have ruled out university or will not flourish there. Thirty-five percent of University of Portsmouth students come to us with qualifications other than A levels.
Students with ‘non-academic’ qualifications succeed at university because universities do not offer only an ‘academic’ education. Universities do not focus on a particular type of education at all. The University of Portsmouth offers degrees in Architecture, Social Work, Nursing, Cyber Security and Forensic Computing, and many other applied subjects. Our courses simply do not fit the academic/technical divide. (Nor, incidentally, do ‘academic’ subjects like medicine or engineering.)
Universities are distinctive because of the level of education we provide. Universities offer higher-level academic, technical and vocational education and skills. As long as there remains a need to study technical or vocational subjects at a higher level universities will provide them. And the demand for higher-level technical education is certainly there. Between 2016/17 and 2017/18 the total number of apprenticeship starts fell by over 30% but higher-level apprenticeship starts increased by 15% (p.7) in response to employer demand.
The Government does understand that some on the T level route may want to go into higher education. They talk about additional ‘bridging’ qualifications to cater for this. But why create the need for a bridge? BTECs do perfectly well as a route for ‘non-academic’ students into university, particularly to STEM subjects. At the University of Portsmouth 65% of our engineering students possess qualifications other than A levels.
Perhaps this is all about young people, such as NEETs, who will never go to university. T levels are for them. Maybe, but a binary A and T level system is far too simplistic. It will let down many young people for whom university is an ambition but A levels are unsuitable, and it will make life harder for those who see T levels as a stepping stone to a higher-level technical qualification.
At root, the problem might just be that A levels are too narrow and that, as the ‘gold standard’, they remain untouchable. However, trying to work around the deficiencies of A levels by creating a second narrow route may make matters worse.
If T levels are to help 16 year olds they need to be sensitive to the fact that university is not an unreasonable aim for many ‘technical’ young people and that we should not force some young people down routes which limit future access to higher-level education. Most importantly, T levels should not be based on the notion that everyone can be sorted into artificial ‘academic’ or ‘technical’ boxes.
If these problems are not addressed, the only way for 16 year olds to keep their options open will be through A levels, which clearly don’t suit many young people. This would also make it even more difficult for technical education to achieve ‘parity of esteem’ with A levels – the very opposite of what is intended.