Lancashire is poised to be at the forefront of a new era in further education which aims to put technical and academic study on an equal footing in the eyes of students and employers.
The county is home to four out of the six North West colleges which were selected earlier this year to spearhead ‘T-Levels’, a skills-based alternative to traditional A-Levels.
And now the region’s economic growth agency has revealed how it plans to help deliver the new qualification and break down the perceived barriers between the different options open to young people once they have completed their GCSEs. Since 2013, it has been a legal requirement for all 16-18-year-olds to remain in education, training or a combination of employment and study.
“We have to ensure that the technical route is seen as equitable to the academic route,” Dr. Michele Lawty-Jones, director of the Lancashire Skills and Employment Hub, told a gathering of local industry and education leaders, as the county unveiled its ‘technical education vision’.
When they are introduced in September 2020, T-Levels will offer students the chance to gain the broad understanding and skills needed to enter their chosen industry - and to specialise in a particular part of it. The courses will be largely classroom or workshop-based and will include on-going English and Maths lessons for those who have not already reached a required level.
However, a key component of the two-year programmes will be a minimum nine-week industry placement - something which divided opinion at the launch event.
“It’s not about the duration, but the quality of these placements - it should be about an experience of work rather than work experience,” Andy Lovatt, Managing Director of digital consultancy The White Room, said.
“Over the course of a week, our placement students come up with an idea and build a brand and prototype. It’s tough for them - just like real work.
“Many students do not initially have employability skills and the ability to have conversations [in the workplace]. And many small businesses are not set-up to offer work experience,” he added.
But another delegate said of the extended placements: “Bring it on”.
“Students can build on the skills they have developed over the two months and evaluate the process at the end,” Jeremy Coates, director of community interest company, Digital Lancashire, said.
And it is the digital industry which will be a driving force behind many of the new T-Levels. Not only is the sector one of the first three subject areas to be introduced, the topic will also be taught as one of the basic skills common across all of the courses.
“The economy is only going in one direction - and it’s digital,” Mark Thwaite, also of Digital Lancashire, told the conference.
“Our members need people coming out of the skills pipeline to help our businesses advance. Digital is changing all the time - if you have a particular skill one day, it might not be relevant the next.
“We don’t want people trained in something that might not be useful when they are applying for jobs,” he said.
To avoid running that risk in any of the T-Level subject areas, the outline content of individual courses is being developed largely by those companies who will be the prospective employers of the teenagers studying them. Panels of industry experts will define the specific skills which students should acquire during their course.
According to the woman responsible for overseeing the T-Levels programme in the county, that industry involvement - coupled with the hands-on experience of a placement - will make the new qualification an attractive one to be found on any CV. Speaking after the event, Janet Jackson, project lead at the Lancashire Skills and Employment Hub, said T-Levels will have “credibility” from the outset.
And she emphasised that T-Level students would still be able to reach the the pinnacle of their chosen profession.
“We would expect that young people will be ready to take up a job straight after completion [of their course].”
“It may be that during their career, they want to do a higher level apprenticeship or a degree [while] they’re in work. There’ll always be a route into higher education, but the whole point of this is making people work ready,” Ms. Jackson added.
By the end of the launch event, there was no shortage of enthusiasm for the new concept, but some delegates were still concerned that old terminology could be a turn-off for students.
“We still have that phrase ‘the academic route’, as if it is superior,” Simon Jenkins, Edge Hill College’s student recruitment boss, warned.
Lancashire may have laid out its vision for technical education - but in order to make it a reality, businesses, colleges and students will all be required to rethink how young people can best prepare for the world of work.
“I EXPECTED TO FEEL LIKE A PAIN”
When Molly Wilson, a computer science undergraduate from Chorley, was looking for work experience last summer, she expected to be offered a week at a company if she was lucky.
And when she ended up having a phone conversation with the boss of Buckshaw-based software firm Magma, she thought that was exactly what she had found.
“He said, ‘Why do you want to come here for a week?’ - and I thought he was asking me to prove myself and say why I wanted a placement. But really, he was asking why I didn’t want to come for longer,” Molly explains.
The 19-year-old then embarked on the kind of extended placement which will be a feature of the new T-Level courses - and she says she wishes she had been given the opportunity at an earlier age, as will the first wave of students to go through the programme in two years’ time.
“I think you’d be capable at 17 - especially if you’re doing a related course. I was nearly 20 and had no idea what it was like at work, because a nine-to-five job was not something I’d ever done.”
Molly says she feared feeling like “a pain” and admits to being daunted on her first day. But she was mentored, trained and treated like one of the team.
“I’ve come back to uni this year and the work I did has put me so far ahead. It gave me a lot of confidence, including in meeting people,”
She even programmed her own piece of software from scratch - something which might help explain why she was made to feel especially welcome.
“I wrote a programme they could use to place their weekly takeaway order on a Friday,” Molly laughs.
The only problem? Leaving so soon.
“It was hard coming back to uni - I was in such a routine and knew what I was doing. I could have stayed longer,” she says.
SIMPLIFYING THE SYSTEM?
For the four Lancashire colleges chosen to rollout the first T-Levels from 2020, the new courses will be as different for them to deliver as they are for students to study.
According to Simon Hughes, a Vice Principal at Blackpool and The Fylde College, the changes should help to “demystify” the current set-up, both for students and companies searching for the best candidates.
“At the moment, there are hundreds of qualifications which school-leavers can take and that makes it quite confusing for employers - they don’t know what each young person is coming to them with.
“With T-Levels, an employer will be able to say, ‘I know the value of your qualification and I know what you can do’,” Mr. Hughes explains.
And he adds that the new system will play a pivotal role in bridging an emerging skills gap in the Lancashire.
“If you take energy as a sector, there are 6,500 people employed, the average age of the workforce is over 45 and the average retirement age is 62. Do the maths and you can see the skills shortages.
“A-Levels have been the go-to place for many school leavers, because that’s what their parents did. But under the current system, we’re not providing the skills employers need to boost the economy.”
THE APPRENTICESHIP ALTERNATIVE
There has been a sharp dip in apprenticeships over the past twelve months, with national figures showing the number of new starts down by a third during 2017/18.
According to Sara Gaskell, Strategic Partnership Manager at the Lancashire Skills Hub, the county is still “holding its own” and outperforming the national average.
And she is not concerned that the introduction of T-Levels will dent their popularity further.
“Don’t forget, the apprenticeship is a paid option - it’s a job,” Sara explains. “Apprenticeships will still have the same esteem as they do now.”
The other main difference between the two technical routes will be that apprenticeships are moving towards more specialist training in most sectors. “For example, there will be a T-Level in digital, but an apprenticeship in social marketing,” Sara says.
As a former apprentice herself, Sara has never doubted their value.
“I’ve trained apprentices in years gone by and then I phone that company years later and recognise the voice of the person who is now the manger - and it’s someone who has been through the apprenticeship programme.”
Since last year, apprentices have been funded by a 10 percent levy on the wage bills of companies whose total pay exceeds £3m.
“Apprenticeship funding isn’t just for 16 or 17 year olds - you can use the levy to upskill your existing workforce,” Sara says.
“People are scared that someone they’ve upskilled will leave - whereas we know that if you develop your people, they’re more likely to stay. My message to companies would be to grow your own talent.”
And that is an appeal which has already been heard by local authorities in Lancashire. A working group will be set up in the new year to explore how councils can use their own levy payments to create opportunities for apprentices in town halls across the county - rather than sending the fee to central government.
At South Ribble Borough Council, they are trying to highlight the career opportunities within local authorities which are often overlooked.
These include growth areas where it has proved difficult to attract the appropriate skills - like building control, planning and environmental health.
The borough’s ‘Apprenticeship Factory’ is both a concept and a physical model which tours the district promoting the value of the vocational route.
Council leader Margaret Smith said: “Our Apprentice Factory aims to identify the skills needed by businesses to help the local economy grow and make sure we get apprentices learning - and earning - and fill any gaps that are out there.
“And because the qualification they complete is relevant and much-desired by would-be employers, we are confident that they will always have great career prospects for the future.”
T-LEVELS IN NUMBERS
4 - colleges across Lancashire selected to rollout T-Levels from September 2020:
Blackpool and The Fylde College
Cardinal Newman College
Nelson and Colne College
3 - subject areas available in the first wave of T-Levels:
education and childcare
8 - other subject areas to be rolled out by approximately 2024:
engineering and manufacturing
health and science
legal, finance and accounting
hair and beauty
agriculture, environment and animal care
business and administration
catering and hospitality
creative and design
45 - minimum number days spent on industry placement during course
1,800 - hours of study and work over two years