The launch of T Levels — Parliament Notes 1

Skills and Post 16 Education Bill  Debate 21 October 2021

For an analysis of T-levels see What am I going to do next (Part 10) in this issue of the magazine.

50% of young people do not go to university.  Of those, only 20% have access to education and training.  That is because there is not the same funding level as for university education.  The government introduction of a new qualification, designed to simplify and enhance the non university alternative, the T levels, will do nothing to solve that problem, on the contrary.  

The discussion takes place in the context of the government’s stated aim of levelling up and upskilling.

(Do not be put off by their silly names (Lord this, Baroness that), the speeches selected here are completely down to earth.)

Lord Layard (Lab)

Given the time, I shall make just four points. The problem is much bigger than most people, maybe myself included, have realised. In 2019-20, the proportion of all 18 year-olds who were in no form of education or work-based training was 30%. That 30% of the 50% not going to university are getting no education beyond the age of 17. This is completely extraordinary and shocking. What is the reason? It is that there simply are not enough places for these people to study and acquire skills compared with people going down the academic route.

The lack of places is almost entirely due to the completely different way in which those places are funded. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, said, when young people go down the academic route, the funding automatically follows the student year by year, but for the other 50% the budget is simply set by the Treasury. It is capped in total and college by college. The current funding for 2021-22, including recent additions, is still less than half what it was in nominal terms in 2010. This is extraordinary and shows the failure of the system that this sort of thing can happen. It is difficult to think of any case of greater discrimination in any other aspect of our public life. I cannot think of any more extreme class-based discrimination than in that area.

What is the remedy? It is clear that the only approach which is fair to other 50% and which will adequately address the problem is to fund the other 50% the same way as the privileged 50% who go down the academic route—to make the money automatically follow these students. The proposal is that every student up to level 3 exercising the lifetime skills guarantee and taking an approved course—not just anything—should be automatically funded according to a national tariff. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, explained, that is the essential part of the first half of this amendment.

The second half relates to apprenticeships. When I was very young, I worked for the Robbins committee. It established the principle that there should be enough places for anybody who qualified for a place and who wanted to exercise access to it. That has always applied to higher education, ever since the Robbins report. It has never applied to the other 50%; they just have not been thought of in that way at all. That really has to change.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Clarke, said, we now have a severe lack of apprenticeships for young people. There is huge, well-documented excess demand but supply is falling. The system is completely unresponsive and far too much of the apprenticeship money is being diverted to the over-25s. I will give two reasons why I think that is wrong. First, what is the key duty of any system of education and training? The first key duty is of course to get everybody off to a proper start. Good initial training is the central feature of any just, efficient system.

There is an extra, economic fact about the use of resources which I think is very relevant. The Department for Education’s own figures show that the benefit-cost ratio is much higher—in fact, double—for apprenticeships for the under-25s compared with those for the over-25s. For the sake of justice and efficiency, we have to redirect this money to an important degree back to the under-25s.

I would have thought this was a central proposal for any levelling-up agenda. We have a problem which is a major cause, almost the main cause, of our low national productivity per head. It is also a major cause of the spread of low incomes among the lower part of the workforce. If we are looking for items for a levelling-up agenda, surely this should be near the top.

[Finance for lower level qualifications]

Baroness Garden (LD)

On Amendment 60, it is important that the lifetime skills guarantee is on a statutory footing if it is to have any impact at all. Both these amendments refer to courses up to level 3. It is important that we do not overlook qualifications at levels 1 and 2, because often they are the gateway to learning for people who have been put off education at an early age, as I have said before. Level 1 learners can be people who are encouraged for the first time to find learning accessible, enjoyable and fulfilling, when at school academic learning and GCSEs had been nothing but off-putting and a source of failure. That is something we need to be sure to support. Once such people discover that a national qualification is within their grasp and their ability, they will often find the confidence to continue to upskill and to gain employment in areas that they previously assumed were unobtainable. If the Government are serious about levelling up, they must start at the lowest levels. Amendment 60 would be a definite boost to that agenda, and I hope the Minister will look on it favourably.

[The question of T Levels and funding of other technical qualifications being withdrawn]

Kenneth Baker (Con) 12 October 2021

“the Government’s policy is according to their statement on 1 January this year, when they opened consultation:

“It is our intention that technical qualifications which overlap with T Levels in these waves will have funding approval removed from the start of the 2023/24 academic year””

Baker then goes on to detail what the consequences will be for young people who traditionally took these technical qualifications:

 “I am quoting from the documents so that they are on the record, so that when MPs see it they know I am not making this up. This is real stuff. Listen to this:

“We have recognised the need for additional qualifications alongside A levels and T Levels, including small qualifications designed to be taken as part of a study programme including A levels. However, we recognise that students who traditionally take”

things such as diplomas, two BTECs or extended diplomas

“tend to have achieved lower GCSE grades than their peers who progress onto A level study. They are also more likely to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic students, have SEND and have received free school meals.”

So the Government admit in this impact document that one of the consequences of this is that the following people will suffer: black, Asian and minority ethnic students, those with SEND and those who have received free meals. They will not actually have much of a chance of going to university. This is a disgraceful and shaming statement to put into any public document.

It gets worse: those from

“Asian and black ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be affected by the proposals, as they are particularly strongly represented on qualifications expected to no longer be available in the future.”

It then does disabled students and disability, with

“these students being more strongly negatively impacted by being unable to achieve level 3 in the reformed landscape.”

So disabled students are going to be disadvantaged in this reformed landscape. Scrap the blasted landscape! It is absolutely disgusting. Quite frankly, I am very ashamed that a Conservative Government have done this. What they are denying to lots of people—black, Asian, ethnic minority, disadvantaged and disabled students—is hope and aspiration.

Baroness Garden

I remind the House of my interests as a vice-president of City & Guilds[…] BTEC broke away from City & Guilds in the 1970s.[…] Over nearly half a century, BTEC has built a reputation which is recognised, understood and valued—or, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, respected—by candidates, employers and academia.

It would be an act of extreme folly and damage for the Government to undermine, let alone cease to fund, a set of qualifications which have had a profound influence on the work skills of the country, especially, as the noble Lord, Lord Baker, pointed out, for disadvantaged groups, and especially at a time when the country needs all the skills it can muster. We need skilled people to replace all the skilled workers which Brexit has seen return to their countries of origin. Do you know, I do not remember seeing that in the Leave campaign materials: “Vote Leave and be deprived of all the skilled workers you need.” We have shortages of farm workers, HGV drivers and butchers. My grandfather was a butcher. He had no problems in those far-off days in encouraging young people into an essential and respected trade.

Successive Governments’ relentless focus on universities and academia has led to a generation believing that actually doing things is less worthy than thinking things. We must urgently work to address the academic superiority which has so beset this nation for generations.

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