Budget 2017: new ‘T-levels’ to match A-levels

Technical levels: In 2015/16, there were 509,400 apprenticeship starts in England — a record.

Wednesday’s budget will very probably contain a radical plan to improve technical training for British teenagers. But with automation taking over the workplace, is it too little, too late?

From GCSEs to A-levels. From A-levels to university. From university to secure, well-paid employment.

For years this has been the commonly accepted route to success. But that may be about to change.

In his budget speech on Wednesday, the British chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, is expected to unveil plans to put technical education on an equal footing with academic studies. One commentator called it “the biggest overhaul of post-16 education in 70 years”.

It seems it will be called the T-level and will have just 15 courses, replacing the current system where students have to pick from 13,000 different qualifications. The mooted titles include engineering and manufacturing, catering and hospitality and social care.

The drive to streamline technical education will give 50% more hours of teaching, and attract an extra £500m a year of funding.

It is 20 years since Tony Blair unveiled one of his most famous pledges. Declaring his three priorities to be “education, education and education”, he said that he wanted 50% of young people to go to university. His dream is now close to a reality.

But as student numbers have exploded, one burning question has persisted: what about the other 50%?

Launching a report into higher education, Professor Alison Wolf said: “We have created a system that is grossly unfair to people who don’t go to university.”

The UK is ranked 16th out of 20 developed nations on the number of people with technical training. Wolf’s report called this collapse in skills in the country of the industrial revolution “a profound mistake”.

Writing in the Financial Times, Miranda Green believes that “simply talking about your desire to break the prejudice against vocational subjects” is not enough. As Professor Wolf puts it: “You change the culture by providing something that is desirable.”

The government says that T-levels are designed to help ensure the UK economy is “match fit” for Brexit. But as the labour market prepares for the new challenge of greater automation, is this a matter of “too little, too late”?

Skill shortage

Unfortunately the answer is “yes”, say some. Britain has moved on from the days where its economy demanded a vast army of workers. As the spectre of automation looms, the jobs of the future will require rarer skills in lesser quantity. The days where you can learn one skill and rely on it for the rest of your life are gone.

Not yet, say others. Attitudes do change — only a few decades ago it was considered unusual for working-class kids to go to university. Many apprenticeships and technical courses teach more useful skills than academic subjects. A highly skilled workforce will always be useful.

You Decide

  1. Should society value technical skills as highly as academic skills?
  2. Do too many people go to university? Or not enough?


  1. Write down three things you want from your education and your career. Then draw up a plan for how to achieve them.
  2. List five jobs that you think will be done by robots in 50 years’ time. Explain your choices.

Some People Say...

“Education should mainly be geared towards helping people get jobs.”

What do you think?

Q & A

I don’t have to make these choices yet.
Even if you are a little young to decide on your future now, you will soon face a choice between pursuing an academic education beyond the age of 16 or a more technical future. And this is a hugely important debate: is the point of education to find out about things you like, in depth, or is it simply about securing employment when you are older?
So what should I do?
Do what you feel is right for you, and do not be bullied into doing what others expect of you. Both technical and academic education have their advantages and disadvantages. To study a subject you truly love is fantastic, and you simply cannot do some jobs without a degree. But if you feel that academic education can take you no further, training for a job might be a better idea.

Word Watch

Budget speech
Setting out the government’s tax and spending plans and economic policies. Last autumn Hammond announced a move to a “single fiscal event” each year after 2017, to make tax changes less frequent and promote stability for business and people. But the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) will still be required to make their own independent economic forecasts twice a year and the government will respond to both: once in the Autumn Budget, and also in a Spring Statement.
Philip Hammond
Dubbed “Spreadsheet Phil” for his dry manner and his love of detail, Hammond has been UK chancellor since June last year. The MP for Runneymede and Weybridge had previously been foreign secretary.
The proposals are based on a review of technical education led by Lord Sainsbury, published in July 2016.
50% more hours of teaching
An increase to at least 900 hours a year.
In 1990 one in five went to university; in 2016 the proportion had increased to 48%. (Source: Department of Education.)
Published in November 2016 by the Education Policy Institute and King’s College London.


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