If we really want to deliver diversity, we need a Public Services T Level

Curriculum reforms are welcome, but we need to tread carefully to ensure there is a clear pathway for all learners, writes Gemma Simmons-Blench, Deputy CEO Curriculum and Quality at Luminate Education Group.

The government’s reasons for wanting to de-fund dozens of technical qualifications seem reasonable: to, as the Department for Education (DfE) has stated, ‘simplify the system for young people’ and create a ‘ladder up for all’.

We have now got an impressive range of T Levels available which offer an attractive option for those seeking to mix their studies with industry placements. While curriculum reforms are welcomed, worryingly there are some missing replacements for all of the NCFE, BTEC and other applied general courses which are set to be phased out by 2025.

This is one of a number of concerns about the proposals that demand urgent action, nationally. The challenge is to introduce these reforms in a manner that doesn’t disadvantage any students or lead to successful existing pathways into work disappearing.

In this regard, the DfE’s claim* that only unpopular or failing applied general courses, or those that overlap with T Levels, will be defunded (*As quoted in this 29 January 2023 article) deserves scrutiny.

Take the uniformed public services courses that are currently offered by further education (FE) colleges, as a prime example. These help students – often with very few qualifications – to develop the skills they need to progress and pursue a career in the police, fire service, army, prison service or ambulance service. All crucial sectors for our society, but all facing challenges in terms of recruiting or retaining staff and ensuring their workforces are sufficiently diverse.

Undermining social mobility

These courses, running from Level 1 to  3, provide a unique pathway for young people for whom a direct route into A levels – or indeed, T Levels, and their five GCSE entry requirement – is simply not available. And there is strong demand for them; at one of our group’s FE providers, Leeds City College, we currently have around 350, 16-18 year old students who want to join a uniformed service.

We also have some 40 adults who came to us to acquire the 80 UCAS points they need, through achieving a Level 3 qualification, to go on and join the police through Leeds Trinity University’s Police Constable Degree Apprenticeship, which is funded by the West Yorkshire Police apprenticeship levy.

The government’s planned reforms, however, provide no direct alternative qualification for learners who want to work in the uniformed services. Instead, the DfE has made arrangements so colleges can apply for funding to run, from 2026, a ‘small Alternative Academic Qualification (AAQ)’ in place of their existing course.

The expectation will be for these small AAQs to be studied in combination with two A levels, which will make this new pathway much less attractive – and in some cases, inaccessible – to many. This change would restrict choice and, nationally, lead to a significant reduction in the number of people attempting to join our uniformed services. 

That would represent a disastrous blow for social mobility.

Delivering a diverse workforce

Our uniformed services still have a long way to go to ensure their workforces reflect our society. This government report for the police in England and Wales, for example, showed that as of March 2022, white officers made up nearly 92% of the personnel.

In West Yorkshire, Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime Alison Lowe described racial diversity last year – when statistics showed that just 7.4% of the force’s officers were from a black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) background – as ‘woeful’.

Yet our courses are helping to address these shortcomings. Some 20% of our Level 3 public service students in Leeds last year identified as BAME.

The gender split amongst students is also helping to address the historical imbalance which the police – whose workforce in England and Wales is 66.5% male – still suffers from. At Leeds City College our public services students last year were 60% female.

A diverse and inclusive approach to recruitment also means welcoming applicants from poorer backgrounds, and 40% of our public service students at Leeds City College in 2022 came from some of the country’s most deprived postcode areas.

FE providers are doing the work, now, to create that diverse workforce which our public services have been crying out for – through courses which might soon be gone.

That is one of the reasons why we are, respectfully, asking Education Secretary Gillian Keegan to consider the creation of a public services T Level that will allow colleges to continue meeting the skills needed in these crucial sectors.

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