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T-Levels might mark a ‘revolution’ in technical education, but who’s going to teach all the students?

Sweeping reforms were recently announced to improve vocational education in the UK for young people, following advice from an expert panel.

A new set of technical qualifications, known as T-levels, will be created as an alternative to the academic A-levels. However following concerns over a tight timeline to introduce the new T-levels, the full roll-out has been delayed until 2023.

While new qualifications to encourage vocational options might sound all well and good, there is a serious shortage of teachers to actually deliver these new qualifications. Recent analysis of Department for Education initial teacher training statistics shows that further education colleges are missing 20,000 staff.

Staff shortages

Further education (FE) colleges educate and train over 2m people in England, and there are many more 16 to 18-year-olds studying in colleges compared to state schools.

FE colleges will be responsible for providing a large proportion of T-levels to full-time students or apprentices, but recruiting and retaining staff is a common problem for this large yet often overlooked sector of education.

T Levels will be on a par with A-levels and will provide young people with a choice between technical and academic education. Shutterstock

The challenge is particularly severe for science, engineering and technology. In 2017, the Education and Training Foundation gave us funding to find out why. We interviewed 31 managers from the human resources and engineering departments of 24 of the largest FE colleges in England.

Nearly all of them found it difficult to recruit engineering and construction teaching staff. A failure to attract any applicants at all to job vacancies was not uncommon. This is mainly because potential candidates can earn much more in industry – as explained by this head of engineering at a college in northern England:

The wages are so good on the outside, that people don’t want to come in and do 40 hours of paperwork a week. When they can stick a few pipes on a radiator and get paid twice as much.

High earners

Education is in competition with industry for staff, and this can impact on existing as well as potential employees. A boom in local industry drives up demand for courses – as prospective students want a qualification which will fit them for local jobs. But at the same time, staff are being lured away. One HR manager reported that three carpentry teachers left in one day to work on a new housing project nearby, and the problem can be inflated by media coverage:

Well, that’s the trouble with FE. [It’s] completely driven in that way. When a story gets in the paper about, you know, the £100,000 for bricklaying, or whatever, then everyone wants to be a bricklayer, but it’s at the time when the market’s at its highest, so you find it hard to employ staff.

Some colleges offer staff skills supplements or market weighting for shortage subjects but even so find their salaries weren’t competitive. And our research shows it is difficult to offer a significantly enhanced package when FE is so financially squeezed.

Added to which, teaching in colleges can involve long hours, a heavy administrative burden and sometimes behavioural challenges in the classroom. Actual working conditions are often very different to applicants’ previous employment, with those used to working independently and in isolation now expected to spend time interacting with students and colleagues.

Hard graft

Our research shows that many staff join the college in their fifties, looking for something less physically strenuous or wanting to “give something back”, but stories of returning disillusioned to industry are not uncommon:

There’s always kind of individuals round the periphery, who come in for probably quite altruistic reasons and reasons to support the profession, but they end up leaving very quickly because teaching is hard, you know, it’s not all warm indoors and no heavy lifting.

All but one college used lecturers from employment agencies to fill gaps between contracts or absences due to sickness. Although some colleges had found excellent staff via this route, agencies were generally seen as more part of the problem than the solution. There were concerns about lower commitment, higher costs and inconsistent quality.

And because agency staff are usually paid by the hour they aren’t around to attend parents evenings or to deal with problems students might have outside lectures or tutorials. This creates a greater burden for permanent staff.

Wanted: teachers

Colleges reported trying various initiatives to attract new teachers, including running taster sessions where people can try out teaching – as well as encouraging promising students to work in the college rather than leaving for roles in industry.

Almost two-thirds of parents have not heard of T-levels, according to new research. Shutterstock

Many were also using current industry employees to teach part-time. But it is clear there are worries about replacing the ageing workforce. And our research showed that once other overarching uncertainties such as Brexit are added into the mix, the overall mood is one of pessimism.

So if the government wants T-levels to be a success, they need to give serious consideration to who will teach them. Because unless radical solutions to the staff shortages are found, government plans for the expansion of technical and vocational education are doomed – giving further education the recognition and funding it deserves would be a start.

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