First published by the Cultural Learning Alliance on 17 January 2018

With so much Brexit news a key piece of post-16 education reform, to be live by 2020, may have been missed. The Westminster Government will be introducing new technical qualifications in England for those over 16 called ‘T’ levels. (Different policies operate in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales.)

‘T’ (technical) levels will sit alongside and complement the new apprenticeship standards offering an alternative to ‘A’ (academic). This is a good development because it could mean that, for the first time, there’ll be parity of esteem between academic and technical routes into employment.

Technical education will be underpinned by 15 new occupational ‘routes’ that are currently being developed. There is one for Creative and Design which is good news.

The route includes pathways to cover occupations from blacksmith, designer to production manager, and everything in between. Some occupations will only be accessed through apprenticeships, but there will also be two-year taught courses in colleges leading to the achievement of a ‘T’ level.

There will be Industry Route Panels to oversee each of the 15 technical routes. It is important for employers in the creative industries to put themselves forward for this to ensure that technical education suits our sector’s needs.

At Creative & Cultural Skills we are positive about the prospect of highly-valued technical education routes into employment in the creative industries. Sixty per cent of workers in our sector are graduates and all not the available jobs are genuinely graduate jobs requiring degrees. This cuts out a lot of talent and makes the sector much less socially diverse than it needs to be.

There are some proposals that concern us:

  1. We want to ensure that applied general courses such as foundation courses in art and design don’t get downgraded or lost altogether in the changes. Our sector relies on such courses to provide a strong foundation for Higher Education applied arts courses and we wouldn’t want them to be a casualty of an otherwise good reform.
  2. Examinations are not the best way to test technical knowledge. In their enthusiasm to ensure that the ‘T’ levels are rigorous and hold their own with ‘A’ levels the temptation is to test elements of them in the same way. We would like to see appropriate assessments for technical courses like an ‘end-point assessment’.
  3. There’s a proposal that ‘T’ level courses include a minimum of 40 days industry-based work experience in the occupational area related to the T-Level. We think this will be impossible to deliver. The creative industries are not evenly distributed across the country so how would students in rural areas access this much work experience and how much travel time and cost will it involve? How many small creative businesses could provide meaningful work experience at scale? There’s a view that only actual work placements are valuable but there are many other ways of providing work experience: professional challenges involving industry experts, project working, bringing creative people into colleges to set challenging tasks. Anyone who remembers the 14-19 Creative & Media Diploma will recall that the Diploma was sound but an arbitrary requirement for schools to teach as consortia made it undeliverable. Nor can we see how colleges could cope with the administration, or how employers will deal with the paperwork (students will need to be given feedback on their work experience), health and safety issues or the need to make access adjustments.
  4. The idea is that students taking ‘T’ levels can go straight into employment, including through apprenticeships, or indeed on to Higher Education (including degree apprenticeships). For this reason we don’t want ‘T’ levels to be too narrow. Our industry thrives on people moving from job to job in a general way rather than getting more and more specialised. It would be a pity if ‘T’ levels are so specific that flexibility, creativity and problem-solving are missed out.
  5. We want training providers to be able to deliver ‘T’ levels for our sector. This will be a challenge as there’s a strong need for up-to-date industry experience to ensure relevance. We’ll need more engagement between the post-16 education sector and our industry to make this work. Some colleges will conclude that there’s no mileage in offering courses within the Creative and Design route if they don’t have live links with industry; if so, students in their areas will miss out.

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