Once again the government is attempting to improve the public’s conception of technical education. The proposal is for a new post GCSE qualification called a T-level which is supposed to be on a par with A-level. As long as it has a different name I fear it will not be seen as on a par, if it is so to be then why not call it A-level? The A-level has a fairly clear public image, primarily as a prerequisite for a degree course, even if some fear that it has been dumbed down to some extent in recent years (I am not sure about ‘dumbing down’ but I do think that A-levels are still tough, certainly tougher than GCSE and tougher than some degree courses). The question in my mind is whether or not we are going to expect the same intellectual challenge in T-levels and, if not, should we regard the qualification as equal?
There is no doubt that courses in engineering, in the broad sense of the word, could be as intellectually challenging. Engineering is, to a large extent, applied science. One is not going to get very far in higher education in any engineering discipline without an understanding of the fundamental science underlying it. The old A-level Physics syllabus, dealing with electricity and magnetism, static forces, Newtons laws of motion, heat, light and sound, and the nature of matter, is essential background to my mind. An engineering A level would be little different except that it could give more engineering applications. It has to be supported by Mathematics, and once again much the same as A level maths. For some time we have had A level Design and Technology. IT and computer science are a must! Why would we want to start calling them T-level?
Of course engineering is far from the only ‘technology discipline’, computer science exists in its own right, materials science, chemistry, pharmacy, biology, medicine et al. I doubt that these disciplines would support a revolution of post GCSE education at A-level. Many students reject the intellectual challenge of these A-level studies, a decision largely made on the basis of their work at GCSE, seeking what they discern as the ‘softer’ option. Nevertheless most of those students do have their talents, and go on to study non-science and technical courses, often they are more creative and their creative abilities are no less valuable. There are many opportunities for students to develop their creative talents but I do not get the impression that this is the aim of the government’s T-levels. So what is the point of the T-levels? Do they want them to appeal to those students that are seeking the softer option, do they want them to be easier than A-level? If so why claim them to be equivalent? There is a danger that the public would soon see them as of a lower standard. As a nation, we need more people with technical knowledge and skills. Comparisons are often made with Germany where there are routes for young people to follow a more technical education that leads them into well paid careers as technicians in a variety of fields, not everyone wants a degree (or Dipl Ing in engineering). We have always had similar opportunities, currently there are NVQs and BTechs which can be studied at different levels, in the past we had Ordinary National Certificates, Higher National Certificates and Higher National Diplomas, often studied part-time, and we may still do. HNC and HND were much valued by employers and public, and many holders went on to very successful careers. Is that not what we should be concentrating on in order to generate a pool of able technicians? Is that not what the higher levels of BTech are trying to do?
Whatever we do there is always a cultural problem in this country, which is linked to class. Historically the aristocracy sent their sons to public schools, after public school they went to university to study classics or theology, or they went into the army, as officers of course. It was beneath them to study anything that was useful and practical. Those who considered themselves upper-class followed suit. Later medicine became an acceptable study, largely, no doubt because they were increasingly aware of their dependence on doctors and were having to accept them in their homes as almost equals, but artisans were seen as servants and of a lower class no matter how skilled and intellectually clever they might become. That attitude persisted in the twentieth century and still persists in some quarters today, engineers and technicians are seen as lower down the social scale than medics, lawyers and bankers. Calling a new qualification that you wish to be equivalent to A-level a T-level, risks encountering the same problem once more.
If it is equivalent to an A-level. Call it an A-level.
If we want to increase the appeal of sub-degree technical education we should put the emphasis on that, emphasise the interesting challenge that technicians at this level can face and the potential salaries that they can achieve. This type of education needs to be done in conjunction with business and industry, the recent emphasis on apprenticeships is the key and industry has to play its part. Dumbing down degrees as a means of producing technicians without the close involvement of industry is not the answer. Apprentices need to have some pay and must have proper training, there has been instances of ‘sham apprenticeships’. Revising the old idea of Training Boards and Levies is a good start, what a pity that Maggie Thatcher disbanded them.