Our continuing journey into education reform: revamping Level 2

Our continuing journey into education reform: revamping Level 2
Date5th Sep 2022AuthorMatt ReynoldsCategoriesPolicy and News, Teaching

We had a call some three and a half years ago now from folks at the Department for Education, and (I’m terribly condensing here) it went along the lines of: ‘There’s going to be some work done looking at reforming technical education. Would you like to be involved?’ It was part of a big round of consulting occurring in the sector.

Immediately we focussed in on the opportunity. We had been looking for a way to develop and enhance our technical and vocational curriculum, and the vibes that were coming out of the sector generally, stoked by news feeds from the likes of SFCA, suggested themes like: a new level of quality to compete with Scandinavian and German training, flexibility to teach in real-world industry ways, and massive involvement with employers… these were all playing the right mood music for us.

Now, I’d say that Cirencester College are more experimental and enthusiastic about change than most, but on that first trip up to London for an FE workshop we didn’t really know what to expect. We found ourselves in a room with top calibre FE movers and shakers from about 30 colleges, a host of civil servants, industry people, sector associations, and the odd MP. The concept was T Level (I’m guessing you know about those now), and the initial spark of creating a new type of preparation course for those not quite ready yet (what would later become known as T Level Transition).

When I think back to that first meeting the thing that struck me was how much evaluation was taking place. Yes, the concepts were being presented to us, but this was interspersed with heaps of questions; policymakers were enthusiastically trawling for our feedback. Later meetings showed that everyone was listening. The thoughts, concerns, ideas, and changes suggested were increasingly being incorporated into successive drafts. There was a real sense of genuine collaboration. We also discovered partner colleges who thought positively, just like us. We built networks of benchmarking partners where we could match up our subject teachers with opposite numbers across the country. Everybody could share and develop together, in a culture of ‘Let’s see what’s possible!’ rather than building lists of ‘reasons why not’. 

I think everyone knew it would be hard (and who would knowingly choose to launch a new employer-heavy qualification during a global pandemic and lockdown?) but that was no reason not to try it. The potential for creating a new fantastic, meaningful, and valuable experience for the learners was just too great.

Fast forward to now. We’re about to start our third year of T Level, effectively our fourth year of Transition. We’ve gone full-tilt on T Level roll out - running all of them (bar Beauty – we don’t have a salon) as fast as they were released. We’ve hit a 100% pass rate across the board, topped national benchmarks for transition success by some seven percentage points, we’ve reinvented how to work with employers, have built the most amazing teaching teams, picked up a National Award for Curriculum Innovation (thanks SFCA), and will be teaching over 300 learners across our T Level and Transition curriculum from this September. That does feel good as I type it, but I’m also aware of the tremendous amount of work that’s been involved. 

Apart from designing new technical Level 3 courses, one of the most exciting parts was a complete revision of how we ran our Level 2 curriculum. We wanted to build a new vehicle for those who’d struggled at school. It needed to be aspirational, confidence-building, and heavily weighted towards skills development and preparation for progression. Developing the Transition programme and its framework allowed us to create something special (so good in fact that we opened the model of delivery to all Level 2 learners a year later). Our Transition programme encompasses a carousel element at the start of the year where learners try lots of course tasters to allow them to refine and confirm their choices. Preparation for the working world is key, along with digital skills training and presentation and employability skills like learning to work well with new people. Level 3 T Level teachers are integrated and contribute to Level 2 delivery. Maths and English are contextualised by the desired theme of progression. All these elements act as a wrapper around a core skills study programme. We also used the HPQ research project as a means of allowing learners to work on their specialism early: a perfect way to make the course feel relevant and meaningful for desired progression routes. This was new thinking – what some would have called ‘holistic’ teaching in old money, but a more credible new method, robustly tied to real tangible outcomes.

If I look back and think about what we did and what had the biggest impact, I think I could fit it into a bullet point list for you (so here goes)…

  • We shared the whole concept across the college from the start, from governors to staff who wouldn’t be involved in delivery but needed to know it was coming. This created a real sense of vision and direction of travel for the future.
  • We educated our employer network right at the beginning, explaining the new quals, how they worked, where they fitted into the education landscape, and how they could be involved.
  • Managers were developed and fully involved with areas of responsibility as early as possible. We wanted them to own it. They’ve adopted it with gusto and I’ve got massive respect for the team and how well they’ve done. They’re national experts now.
  • T Levels are typically taught by mostly traditional vocational teachers: don’t underestimate that staff will need support and training to change to T Level styles of course and delivery.
  • Everyone needed to understand this was new. Re-versioning the old stuff was not going to cut it. Establishing things like case study delivery, employer engagement in planning teaching, and experiential trips (in massive amounts) all needed a new approach.
  • Transition is an experience and a true encasing programme of study, not a collective of Level 2 bits and bobs. Make it a million miles away from an ‘I failed school’ course. It’s a chance to grow and develop your learners and prepare them precisely for T Level. We took them seriously and were rewarded with mature, enthusiastic and aspiring learners.
  • Use benchmark connections extensively. How many times have you reinvented the wheel? There’s a host of colleges doing the same thing as you who are willing to share, and there’s plenty of help out there to connect you up with non-competitors in handy networks.
  • Experiment. This is probably a once-in-a-career opportunity to design something completely new from scratch. Be brave and go for it.

As we all know, education doesn’t really stop. We never sit still for a moment. In reality we’re all change managers in this business, and we’re good at it: the FE sector is one of the best at dealing with change and still delivering, so don’t fear it. The difference here is that you have the chance to drive it, to design it and build your new thing, making it exactly what you always wanted. If you’re on the outside looking in at T Level and thinking of trying it: all I can say is that we did it, and have never looked back.

A final quote from the people that really matter: our learners. Working with one of our recent T Level ‘graduates’ on results day (who’s now in employment), they said in passing “This whole thing has just been the best learning experience of my life.” Now that’s what we were aiming for. Roll on the next wave.

Matt Reynolds is VP with responsibility for teaching, learning, and development, and won the SFCA Curriculum Innovation award in 2022, together with colleague Rich Stonebridge, for his work on revamping Level 2 provision. Look out for more blogs from award winners in the coming weeks.

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