Although most of politics is on fast forward these days, some areas of policy still play out in slow motion. And some seem to be stuck on a loop, replaying the same scenes again and again.
As the Institute for Government pointed out in its All Change report, Britain is cursed by the tendency of successive administrations to reinvent policy, creating expense, disruption and human cost without much to show for it – and citing further education as an example.
Technical levels (T-levels), a proposed system of vocational education, were unveiled in the spring Budget. These would create 15 pathways that lead young people into more than 60 occupations across industries and sectors.
Like many a past ministerial initiative to boost the nation’s skills base, T-levels – although potentially a huge change – made few headlines. Meanwhile, weary education watchers reflected on previous policies to promote technical qualifications to tackle skills shortages. None of these transformed opportunities for school leavers nor achieved parity of esteem between vocational and academic training.
But the new plan is a substantial foray into a mostly neglected area, and deserves attention. It may fizzle out or end up earning support if its shortcomings can be addressed.
Because T-levels do at least address a glaring hole in our education system.
As Professor Alison Wolf of King’s College London points out, the UK has concentrated on expanding undergraduate degrees to the exclusion of other routes into well-paid work. The numbers takings vocational HNDs, HNCs and two-year foundation degrees have plummeted.
This skewed system has failed to deliver the expected economic dividends: neither productivity nor wages are rising. “As a silver bullet, this [degree expansion] is beginning to look a bit tarnished,” as Prof Wolf pointed out in her lecture to the Education Policy Institute at the end of last year.
What if there were other, well-regarded options? After all, a degree in law or medicine is attractive and high status (both, please note, are vocational). The UK needs to see technical qualifications in the same light, but this cultural change will come only when parents and employers see they have value. T-levels were so named to be easily understood as the alternative to A-levels. But their success depends on other factors.
Quality control will depend on how well the new Institute for Apprenticeships can vet qualifications and ensure that education providers are up to scratch. Employers will need to be closely involved in courses, providing the right placements and training.
Take-up will depend on how families respond to non-academic alternatives. A recent change in the law should help, because schools will now be required to provide information about vocational options and colleges for the first time.
In the end, young people themselves will decide whether T-levels will work. It is risky not to bother with a degree if half of your peers are studying for one. Even when the earnings premium for graduates declines, a degree still makes economic sense because the wage prospects of non-graduates are getting even worse.
In addition, the T-levels plan creates a completely separate type of education from the age of 16, with little flexibility to swap back and no options to mix vocational and academic subjects. This is its major flaw, because it will make the untested vocational option too brave a choice for many. And then we can expect to be back in the policy loop all over again a few years down the line.