£1 billion funding boost and a “hearts and minds” business engagement drive needed to make a success of T levels

Published on Intergenerational Commission

apprenA major funding boost and business engagement drive is needed to get T levels – new technical qualifications for 16-18 year olds – off the ground and help the neglected majority of young non-graduates who are badly let down by the education system, according to a new report published today (Friday) by the Resolution Foundation.

Technical Fault, the 20th report for the Foundation’s ongoing Intergenerational Commission, sets out a series of proposals to boost the skills and career prospects for young non-graduates today, as well as those still in school.

The report shows that successive cohorts of young people have enjoyed rapid skills progress over the last 50 years. The proportion of people earning degrees by their late 20s has almost trebled from 14 per cent among those born in the late-60s, to 38 per cent for those born in the early 1990s. But that skills progress has slowed recently, with much smaller increases in the numbers going to university and little progress since the mid-1990s in reducing the share of young people only qualified to GCSE level of less.

The Foundation warns that this lack of progress in part reflects the fact that options for the majority of young people who do not go to university are difficult to navigate and too often of poor quality. As a result, men with level 3 technical qualifications earn a third less per hour than male graduates.

The report strongly welcomes government plans to address this through the introduction of T levels from 2020. However, it warns that their successful introduction means overcoming widespread indifference from business. New polling shows that nearly three quarters of businesses (73%) had not seen or heard anything of T levels.

While the full roll-out of T levels is not due until 2022, this lack of awareness is particularly concerning given the pivotal role businesses will play in T levels, which include 45 days’ worth of work placements.  Fewer than one in five firms (18%) said that their business is already set up to, or could easily, provide work placements compared to one in four firms (25%) who said their workplace was not suitable for 16-18 year-olds.

The Foundation says that a “hearts and minds” business engagement drive will be needed to raise awareness and drive culture change amongst businesses if T levels are to be a success. A major funding boost will also be needed to ensure high quality qualifications are taught in high quality colleges.

It says that funding is key given the wider context of further education having has been cut by 16.3 per cent since 2010, even while schools and higher education budgets have been protected. During the early 1990s per-pupil spending in further education was nearly £1,600 higher (in current prices) than in secondary schools. It is now £630 less per-pupil.

The Foundation says that the good news is these challenges to technical education reforms can be overcome. Firstly their goal enjoys widespread support from business, with around two in five firms (38%) saying that technical education (including apprenticeships) should be the government’s main education priority.

Secondly funding can and should be made available by cancelling half of the proposed cut in corporation tax that is due to come into effect in April 2020 – still leaving the tax rate falling from 19 to 18 per cent.

Such a move would raise over £2bn by 2020 – enough to provide £1bn for technical education providers so they can make a success of the education reforms that employers say are needed to boost their competitiveness. This funding boost would also bring further education funding levels in England back to their 2011/12 levels.

Kathleen Henehan, Policy Analyst at the Resolution Foundation, said:

“Policy makers spend far too much time discussing graduates at the expense of the neglected majority of young people who don’t go to university, and who are badly let down by our education system.

“Britain’s continued failure to value vocational education has left non-graduates facing huge pay and career penalties. Post-16 education is ripe for reform, and the government is on the right track with new ‘T levels’ planned for roll-out from 2020.

“However, proper funding and employer engagement with the new qualifications are crucial to making them a success. As things stand businesses are largely unaware of what T levels are, and too few are ready to play a role in making them work.

“Young people cannot afford another failed further education initiative. The government needs to back up its proposals with a major cash injection and a hearts and minds business engagement plan.

“Firms rightly often complain that Britain’s education failings hold back their competiveness. So by putting £1bn of the savings from cancelling half of the planned corporation cut into further education instead, government can support young workers and get businesses the technical skills they need.”