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The technical and professional education reforms (variously known as the Sainsbury reforms or, more officially, the Post-16 Skills Plan) represent yet another huge shift for our sector. The noise from the implementation of the apprenticeship reforms has been deafening at times, but forms just one part of a bigger picture that we now need to pay attention to.

The scope of the reforms are huge, affecting the way we train and deliver skills for just about every occupation from Level 2 to potentially Level 7 and even beyond. We certainly cannot be tempted to think of the reforms as merely “something for Colleges” – they are a major opportunity for providers of all types to utilise their undoubted expertise and experience of employer engagement in skills across a large swathe of the economy. However, for the reform programme to work, there are three elements that need to be especially closely considered.

Firstly, Sainsbury recommended three-month work placements within all provider-based qualifications. The original report cited a need for around 250,000 such placements each year, which the DfE have since downgraded to 180,000 – but only for 16-19 year olds at Levels 2 and 3. When we add in the estimates for all ages and levels we quickly reach well over 500,000 work placement or work experience opportunities each year. These have to be found in the right sectors, in the right volumes, at the right level, in the right place and at the right time. Superficially, if there are 5.5m businesses in the UK that seems plausible – just. But given breakdowns of sectors, size and location of businesses, major factors in their ability to host meaningful placement opportunities, such plausibility starts to recede. Given “no placement, no T-level”, this supply is crucial to the success of the whole enterprise. Can it be met?

The second element concerns the occupational standards. Ultimately held and owned by the IfA(TE) Route Panels, these will govern the development of all T-levels and Apprenticeships, identifying a common core of training needs for the occupations in their respective routes. However, with many standards already in place for Apprenticeships, these will have to be “retrofitted” to ensure that the standards which are supposed to govern them – which haven’t been written yet – are aligned with those that already exist. As the saying goes, you wouldn’t really start from here!

In addition to this there are issues in mapping the routes. In the Post-16 Skills Plan we see “Upholsterer” and “Journalist” in the same route, as are “Events Manager” and “Butcher”. It is difficult to see what common core of training needs these might have beyond some generic factors such as literacy and numeracy - if the route standards have to be that broad, then the exercise becomes pointless.

The occupational mapping is not yet complete – we might see something in the autumn – so this could be resolved yet. But that brings us to the third element – the timetable. If we do not have the occupations mapped until autumn 2017, then you have to wonder when the standards will be drawn up, (bearing in mind it is taking over a year for each Trailblazer to devise a defined Apprenticeship standard at present). You then have to wonder how AOs will begin to create plans for developing T-levels in time for a procurement exercise for a sole occupational licence in October 2018. With results of that not due until February 2019, it becomes very difficult to see how the winners can finish developing the T-levels and prepare the sector for delivery to meet the timetable of September 2019.

It must be said that the reform’s overarching principles are, in AELP’s view, sound and welcome. There is goodwill all over the sector to co-create the framework in which they can work and succeed. However, officials must look again at the timetable, extending it to allow the proper time needed to create standards that are meaningful, and to build an infrastructure to supply the right placements in the right numbers at the right time. Without this, we will repeat the mistakes of the Apprenticeship levy – a project which had its heart in the right place, but which was rushed and which did not listen to the warnings of our sector - warnings that were proved right in just about every respect. Let’s not go there again, because if we do this right, it represents a great opportunity for all providers of all types to make a very positive impact right across the entire skills spectrum.

Paul Warner, Director of Research and Development, AELP

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