The UK’s attitude to post-16 education is conflicted, to put it mildly. Most agree – whether politicians, employers, parents or students – that the range of courses is too narrow, that parity of esteem between academic and other pathways needs levelling-up, that too many university courses are as unnecessary and unhelpful as they are expensive.
Yet we cling to the idea that reform is needed to help “other people’s children”, keen for our own to stick with the “gold standard” of A-level and academic degree.
Keir Starmer may be on to something in describing the power of this ambivalence as a “class ceiling”. The attachment to the academic pathway appears to operate at a gut level, in defiance of what is needed or wanted either by young people or by the economy.
As a 2024 election hoves into view, announcements and proposals across the political spectrum are pointing spotlights on this area once again, raising hopes of a lasting solution. But we have been here before and the system has been powerfully resistant to change.
The recent development of T-levels enjoys strong cross-party support, which has helped generate the confidence needed to inspire the long-term planning and investment required.
16 to 18 year-olds choose one sector of employment and undertake a single T-level course combining technical and skills-based classroom learning with extended real-work placements.
T-levels aim to make them ready to step straight into a job at 18, without the three-year delay and £50,000 of debt that university would entail.
So far so good, although the rite of passage that university offers should not be underestimated. More importantly, to become a mainstream reality T-levels need to be offered at most schools. But the logistics, risks and costs of sourcing the specialist staff and equipment needed to do so are sizeable; many schools are either hoping they will not take off, or have concluded they are unaffordable.
If so, much of the capacity for T-levels will have to be provided in sixth-form colleges where critical mass can be generated. Labour’s proposal of Technical Excellence Colleges is a response to this reality.
However, it still means a move after GCSE for students wishing to do employment-focused study, while their A-level peers can stay put. Many students and parents naturally resist a move at that point: leaving behind friends and teachers who know them is daunting, perhaps even more so for those venturing out of the Jewish sector for the first time.
Plans for a T-level college with a Jewish ethos foundered on the fact that a new institution needs 1,000 students to be viable. Even if a quarter of all Jewish students in London moved to it each year, they would still be in a minority.
Meanwhile the Conservatives announced plans for a “British Baccalaureate”, not replacing A- or T-levels but bringing both under a single umbrella along with compulsory English and maths, and other enrichment activities.
The overall aspiration has its appeal, but the practicalities are complex. There is already a critical shortage of maths teachers even before adding to the demand, while persuading reluctant students to continue with subjects they long to drop may be an uphill struggle.
Certainly the current system consigns too many to feeling “second best”. Seeing how some other nations are faring may lead others to feel the UK itself is second best too, both educationally and economically.
Until we can admit our conflictedness and find a way forward, the cost is paid not just in skill shortages, student debt and wasted time, but also in a persistent undermining of ambition and self-worth in successive generations. Even in a crowded field of priorities, few are more pressing than this.
Patrick Moriarty is a former headteacher of JCoSS