T-Levels: our huge task

BUSINESS VIEW: The first tranche of T-levels is being developed. But Liverpool Girl Geeks director Jo Morfee, who sits on the panel developing the digital qualification, says the content is only the start.
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T-LEVELS can be a great thing – and go some way to plugging the skills gap that exists across most of our industries.

From 2020, 16-year-olds will have the option to study these new technical qualifications, which will include three-month work placements, better preparing them for industry.

I was honoured to join one of the Department for Education panel’s developing the content for the Data and Digital Business Services T-Level pathway, alongside representatives from many leading tech employers.

Our task is huge. We already know that 90% of jobs across all sectors require some form of digital capability, yet a recent study suggested 43% of adults in the UK don’t possess the skills required by most vacancies.

As we tell all the young people we work with at Liverpool Girl Geeks: all careers are now tech careers, whether they are in fashion or more traditional sectors like manufacturing. Technology moves at such a fast pace, so it seems right that industry takes the lead in developing these qualifications, making up roughly 80% of the panel.

Everyone brings different perspectives, experiences and skill-sets. And there are powerful voices from some of the country’s largest digital employers, such as Fujitsu and Accenture, unafraid to take strong decisions.

Jo Morfee
Liverpool Girl Geeks director Jo Morfee

We’re rejecting some of the suggestions of the Gatsby Foundation – which set the path for the technical education reforms via the Sainsbury Review – because we think they are already dated or not suited to our pathway.

Meanwhile, as one of few panel members currently working with young people, I offer views on when youngsters can be pushed harder in some aspects , or won’t be remotely interested in others.

The panel’s breadth and depth of experience should give parents, teachers, students and employers confidence that T-Levels are being designed with real world outcomes in mind.

If they are delivered correctly, they will transform the face of post-16 education, with those who sit them expected to go down a more practical pathway.

That’s a good thing.

A lot of young people we work with respond much better to learning by doing rather than someone talking at them.

Anumber of challenges must be overcome if T-Levels are to succeed. For a start, the government is launching T-levels in 2020 and we are designing it now.

Tech evolves at such a fast pace that we just can’t predict how far that’s going to go in three years. So we’re trying to future-proof these qualifications, teaching people to expect the unexpected and to be curious. It should be equally about teaching them an approach to behaving and not just teaching the technical skills.

Youngsters take part in a Liverpool Girl Geeks session

It’s also very difficult for teachers to keep pace with changes when they aren’t embedded in the industry. Liverpool Girl Geeks’ eight-week academy programmes are led by industry professionals and we think that’s the best approach for maintaining up-to-date content. With T-Levels, that might mean people from industry coming in regularly to support teachers.

When the government introduced computer science GCSEs recently, it seemed a promising update. But the Royal Society has reported that more than half of English schools aren’t offering the qualification – only 8% of pupils are studying the subject in Liverpool. It can be seen as a bit of an “add-on” to the other subjects, when it should be considered a core skill set, like teaching English or Maths.

So we might end up looking at how to help pupils prepare for the new T-Level if they have not studied computer science at GCSE. And that’s where short programmes like those we run at Liverpool Girl Geeks can be invaluable to help bridge the gap and provide inspiration to young people.

But to get the take-up we need, we must first win the PR battle with teachers, parents and careers advisers. Many of the most important conversations happen over the dinner table but, in the past, parents might have viewed technical qualifications as second-rate.

Girl Geeks’ programmes end with ‘graduation’ ceremonies when we do a ‘did you know’ session for families, offering information about the kinds of opportunities and salaries people can expect. They’re often astounded.

Generic image of engineering apprentices
COMMENT: Employers must seize the initiative on the skills agenda

Digital skills are hugely important, including in traditional industries. Manufacturing is a prime example, with the smart factory and data revolution that’s going on, but many parents have no idea.

Even if you’re in a job that on the face of it isn’t a tech role, it’s really useful to have a basic grip on coding, for example, because you’ll then be able speak to developers in a language they understand.

Getting that across to young people can be difficult. It’s only once you’re in the sector that you understand how exciting it is. Emerging tech can help to inspire. Give a young person a VR headset and tell them it’s used to train surgeons, and it’ll blow their mind.

We’ve discussed the importance at the T-Level panels of linking every pathway to an outcome; saving a person’s life or making people’s lives easier. That ‘tech for good’ angle is absolutely key in promoting the sector because it shows a career as having a real purpose. Many young people are no longer solely motivated by potential earnings.

Liverpool Girl Geeks participants

Diversity is another challenge. Just one-in-five computer science GCSE students last year was a girl, and only 10% of them followed up the subject at A-Level.

Yet diversity makes tech better. Voice recognition software initially couldn’t recognise women’s voices because it was an all-male team that developed it.

Everybody should have an equal opportunity no matter their circumstances. But it’s especially important given Brexit is happening at a time when the digital economy is growing and we already have so many jobs left unfilled within the sector, particularly within development and programming.

After all, you can’t hope to plug the digital skills gap if you’re only fishing in half the pond, so to speak.

This is why the Girl Geeks team has launched InnovateHer, with the aim of correcting tech’s gender imbalance nationwide.

Working in disadvantaged areas, we use industry role models, events and schools-based academy programmes to reverse gender inequality and improve digital skills. We mean to disrupt the education sector!

Role models offer crucial inspiration. Research has shown that young people who have regular contact with potential employers at school are 86% less likely to end up completely out of employment, education or training.

And industry engagement is being built in to T-Levels, with students spending three months on placements. It’s likely many employers will eventually take on young people who have fitted in well during a placement with them.

Given the potential rewards – particularly when set against the burden of a student loan – a tech career should be an attractive proposition to young people.

So get the content right, and we should deliver a win-win-win: for industry, pupils and the UK economy.

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