Over the past decade, evidence has highlighted weaknesses in the quality of technical education. The 2011 Wolf Review and 2016 Sainsbury Review identified that too many qualifications were poor quality and poorly understood by students and employers.

Sue Lovelock is Director of the Professional and Technical Education Directorate at the Education and Skills Funding Agency. She was previously Deputy Director for T Levels Delivery, with responsibility for the development and delivery of T Levels. Her team are responsible for working with colleges to ensure they’re ready to deliver T Levels, leading on industry placements support and policy, communications, and stakeholder engagement. T-Levels Delivery works closely with Technical Qualifications Development & Regulation Division, which has responsibility for T Levels policy and the procurement of single licensing.

In this session from the Youth Employability 2021 conference, Sue discussed the strategy for reforming technical education, the value of T Levels and what the next steps are for post-16 education reform.

Video Transcript

Hi, thanks very much. And I’m hoping that George is going to kindly present my slides for me. But I will kick off while he does that bit of magic behind the scenes. Thanks very much for inviting me along this afternoon. It sounds like you’ve had a really interesting and really full day, so I’ll try and be as concise as I can in taking you through my slides. But I’m really keen to be able to make the links to some of the discussions that you’ve been having around youth unemployment, to some of the opportunities that we are creating through our reforms to technical education. And as has already has been said, I’m Sue Lovelock. I’m the director professional and technical education in the SFA.

And if I move on to my first substantive slide, if that’s all right, George. I wanted to use this opportunity to set out some of the reforms that we are undertaking to technical education to really make sure that we are giving young people the skills that they need to succeed in the workplace when they are taking their post 16 studies. This has been a priority for the government since the Lord Sainsbury led review back in 2016, which looked at technical education. And in particular, looked at the lessons that we could learn from better performing systems internationally that have more success, I guess, in getting young people successfully trained in a wide range of technical skills, and making a successful first start in the workplace.

The case for this is really strong, both from a social and an economic perspective. And in particular, the productivity gains, if we can improve skills in this country, are really significant. The landscape that we have at the moment is really complex. We’ve got over 12,000 qualifications currently approved for funding and available in the system at Level 3 and below, making it a very complex landscape, both for young people and for employers to navigate and understand. And to ensure that the quality is right in all of those qualifications is a sort of impossible ask, really. So having a streamlined and higher quality system of qualifications, post 16, is a really core part of the government’s reforms to technical education and the FE white paper, which was published back in January.

So we are doing three big things as part of our reforms. One is the introduction of T-Levels, which are new high quality Level 3 programs in 24 subjects, which are aiming to be the technical counterparts of an A-Level clue in the name. We are also reforming higher technical education. So the parts of the education system that sit between A-Level study and degree level study at Level 4 and 5, making sure that more young people and, indeed, retraining adults, can access opportunities by retraining at this level in technical skills. And we are also looking at the wider qualifications landscape to make sure that qualifications that continue to be funded at this level and below are really providing the best possible training for young people, with really high quality courses that are supported by employers and lead them onto progression.

Moving on to the next slide. One of the things that we’ve really put a guiding principle of all of our reforms is the importance of linking what employers need more directly with the provision of skills. This might sound obvious, but it hasn’t always been put in places as centrally as it should be, and is a really critical part of our reforms to apprenticeships, to T-Levels and to higher technical qualifications. And we are using, as our sort of guiding map, really, the concept of occupational standards to help us to design and reform apprenticeships, to develop and deliver T-Levels, and to ensure that qualifications at Levels 4 and 5, those higher technical qualifications, are aligned with the skills that employers actually need for young people to go into the workplace successfully. And why does this matter for youth unemployment? Well, this is really about making sure that young people have the skills, when they leave education, to go into the workplace and making sure that we are giving young people really clear progression routes, and really arming them with the skills that they need to make those successful first steps into the workplace.

So moving on to the next slide. I’ll say a little bit about T-Levels, which we introduced the first three T-Levels in September last year. They are new Level 3 programs. They’re a two year course aimed at 16 to 19 year olds, and they are comprised roughly 80% of the time in the classroom, and 20% of the time on the job, in an industry placement where they can develop and test their skills that they’ve been learning in college, and really test them out in a workplace environment. T-Levels attract UCAS points in line with A-Levels. And they’re big substantial programs in size. They’re equivalent to a 3 A-Level program, with each T-Level comprising broad course content at the start, which then narrows down into a really specific set of skills required to do a particular occupation.

Moving on to the next slide. We want to make sure that as many young people as possible can benefit from a T-Level. And so, alongside the introduction of T-Levels, we’re also rolling out a T-Level transition program, which aims to support young people that might not yet be ready for a T-Level to progress onto a T-Level through a one year program which helps to get them ready to start a T-Level. So we’ve got some great providers that have started offering this to young people this year, alongside the introduction and roll out of T-Levels.

As part of each transition framework, the individual young person will have a period of diagnostic and guidance with their provider while they really kind of get to grips with what their needs are and where they would like to go. English and maths will be a core part of that. And that’s something that we are hearing very consistently from employers is absolutely critical for making a success in the workplace. Each transition program will also include an element of work experience and getting that exposure to employers, which we know is so critical for arming young people with the soft skills that they need as well as introductory technical skills as well, to help them make that successful transition onto a T-Level.

Moving on to the next slide. It was, of course, an unexpected, additional challenge to launch T-Levels in 2020 against the backdrop of global pandemic. But I’m really pleased. I’m really proud of the fact that we launched T-Levels as planned in September, with 44 colleges and other providers around the country teaching the first three T-Levels to around 1,300 students. So it’s been a small but perfectly formed start. And the feedback that we’ve had from students has been fantastically positive. I won’t read out the quotes there, but I think their endorsement of the programs and their enthusiasm has been brilliant to see. And it was a real pleasure to meet some of them through Zoom, of course, last month and hear how they’re getting on and how excited they are about taking their industry placement part of their program as they go into the second year of their program.

Of course, it has been a challenge to launch a new program during COVID 19. And in particular, the industry placement element of the program has had to be back loaded into the second year for each of these students, which isn’t part of our original plan. Although, we are working very closely with providers to make sure that they’ve got all the support that they need to secure those placements and to make sure that those young people get that experience that they need, and that will be so critical to their success as they move forward.

Moving on to the next slide. I just wanted to give a bit of an overview of the rollout of T-Levels going forward. We have started small, but we’ve got ambitions to grow much bigger quite quickly over the next few years. We’re launching our next seven T-Levels this September, which is coming around remarkably quickly. And over a hundred providers will be offering T-Levels from this September, including our 2020 and 2021 cohort, with nearly 200 providers offering T-Levels or planning to offer T-Levels from September ’22, when we will have a further six T-Levels added into the mix. We have worked very closely with providers right from the outset in preparing for the rollout of T-Levels, and have had great feedback from them on our support for their implementation planning, the investment that we’ve made in workforce, the investment in capital facilities to support a smooth and successful rollout of T-Levels.

Moving forward, I wanted to say a bit about the wider qualifications landscape at Level 3. So just moving on to the next slide, George, if that’s okay. We consulted over the autumn and winter on the wider post 16 qualifications landscape. I mentioned at the outset that we’ve currently got a system where 12,000 qualifications exist, and that we have ambitions to move to a simpler national framework with much more focus on quality and progression in every part of the landscape. We consulted, during the autumn and early part of the winter on our proposals, and are currently in that phase where we are busily analysing all of the feedback that we’ve received to refine our proposals and are planning to set out our detailed decisions later in the summer. In summary, we’ve listened really carefully to the feedback we’d had in earlier consultations about the importance of recognising that there will need to be continued niche and specialist provision in some areas, and the importance of recognising the value of smaller applied general qualifications that might sit alongside A-Levels as part of a successful study program.

Moving on to the next slide. I wanted to conclude by saying a little bit about the reforms that we’re making to technical education at Level 4 and 5. This is very much a coherent part of our reforms for T-Levels and the post 16 qualifications review. And we really want to support many more young people to progress through technical training, to levels four and five. It offers great returns for individuals if they study at this level. And this is also part of the landscape where we see a real skills gaps in our economy. And so, there’s a real win-win for both the individual and for the economy if we can get more young people training and excited about taking courses at this level.

Moving on to the next slide. This sets out some of the sort of, why should we care about this? And why do we think that this is important? A bit similar to the story at Level 3 and below, we have many thousands of qualifications available in this part of the landscape, but that makes it very difficult both for learners and employers to judge what’s a good quality course and what might lead them onto good progression. And I think stats around levels of take up have declined over time. And England is really a bit of an outlier in terms of our levels of training at this skill level in terms of looking at the international picture. So a real opportunity to get more young people and adults training at this level, and making those links into really great jobs in well paid and thriving parts of the economy.

So what are we doing to take that forward? If we move on to the next slide. We are putting in place a national approvals process to show which higher technical qualifications meet employer skills needs. So having a bit of a kite marking approach, working very closely with our colleagues in the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to really build that link between what employers need and the qualifications that are available. We’re also investing to improve the quality of provision through support for providers and raising the profile and prestige of higher technical education, developing a brand and communications with stakeholders and improved advice and guidance for prospective learners. This work will very much sit as part of the overall reforms to try to introduce a lifelong learning entitlement, which the PM set our commitment to in the autumn.

So to sum up, if I move on to the final slide, if that’s okay, on next steps. These reforms are a really critical part of the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which was published back in January, and which really sets out the DFE’s ambitions for the skills landscape for the remainder of the parliament. We’re continuing to roll out and build on the early successes of T-Levels. We’ll be setting out our response to the consultation at Level 3 and below later in the year, and are continuing to build a system that’s coherent and supports progression for young people, whether they are further away from the labour market and need support through a transition offer, or whether we want to kind of really arm them with those technical skills, which are so in demand in the economy. I’ve rattled through that relatively quickly, but I’m really happy to take questions. But I will pause there.


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The DFE have developed several new policies to reform the further education sector, with the aims of improving youth employability. We heard from Sue Lovelock from the Department for Education about the value of T Levels and the importance of widening access to technical education to further promote employment.

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