Department for Education permanent secretary Jonathan Slater has received a ministerial direction to press ahead with implementing reforms to technical education qualifications in England by 2020 after he warned secretary of state Damian Hinds the scheme may not be ready in time.
In a letter to Hinds sent on 17 May, Slater said that the T-Levels programme presents an opportunity to significantly improve technical education for 16-18-year olds in England, and said a very large amount of design and development work had already taken place with colleges and employers.
However, he said he had advised Hinds to delay the first qualification by a year to 2021 as it was now clear the original timetable was “very challenging”.
T-Levels are intended to help boost the provision of technical education in the UK by allowing young people to receive a technical qualification, equivalent to A-levels, for classroom-based training programmes for those aged over 16. This is intended to complement work-based apprenticeships, for students who want to develop work-related knowledge and skills, but are not yet clear about the specific occupation they want to work in.
In October, Hinds’ predecessor as education secretary Justine Greening announced that the first of the new qualifications, with content developed by firms including Rolls Royce, Fuijitsu and EDF, will be taught from 2020, but Slater has now warned this timetable may not be achievable.
He said that the rollout by 2020 was “ambitious” and after regular reviews, he had concluded that “as things stand today, it will clearly be very challenging to ensure that the first three T-levels are ready to be taught from 2020 and beyond to a consistently high standard”.
As the department’s accounting officer, he was required to consider the 'regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility' of public spending. Directions are most frequently used when departmental accounting officers, usually perm secs, think that to go ahead with a planned policy would be inappropriate or not value for money. The requests effectively force ministers to publicly defend their proposals and issue formal instructions to proceed.
“If these were the only considerations, you are aware that I would advise deferring the start date to 2021 in order to mitigate the feasibility and consequential value for money risks,” Slater said.
“But it is perfectly legitimate for you to bring other considerations to bear, namely the high priority that the government attaches to the programme in light of the urgency of the task of improving technical skills. And on this basis you can quite legitimately decide that we should stick to 2020.
“In this case, I need a formal written direction from you, which I will of course follow to the very best of my abilities, ensuring that the department continues to work strenuously under your leadership and with all involved to progress this key government priority with all due speed.”
In his response issuing the direction, Hinds insisted that the plan to launch the new qualification was a “measured implementation”, with the two-year courses meaning the first completions would be in summer 2022.
“I appreciate the advice I have received about the delivery timetable and have considered this in detail,” he said. “I recognise your reasons for requesting a ministerial direction and how they align with your responsibilities as the accounting officer for DfE.
“As you say I am able to draw on a wider range of considerations than the guidance to accounting officers, and I am convinced of the case to press ahead.”
The reform is part of government efforts to improve skills and boost productivity, Hinds said, and would simplify a confusing landscape of more than 13,000 qualifications at Level 3 (equivalent to A-Level) and below.
“None of the advice has indicated that teaching from 2020 cannot be achieved,” he added. “Indeed we have discussed at length the robust plans we are putting in place, and the collaboration already underway with employers (on both subject matter and work placements), colleges and other FE providers.
“I know that you will now, in the best traditions of the civil service, work at all speed to deliver this top government priority.”
Slater’s direction is the fifth received by a permanent secretary this year, with a majority relating to authorising Brexit-related spending that lacks legislative consent
Following guidance from Treasury perm sec Tom Scholar and Department for Exiting the European Union chief Philip Rycroft last year, they can be used to approve for spending that does not yet have legislative backing, in order to aid Brexit preparations.
In January this year, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs perm sec Clare Moriarty became the first Whitehall leader to seek a Brexit-related ministerial direction when she called on secretary of state Michael Gove to approve £16m for half a dozen Brexit related projects in advance of the EU Withdrawal Bill becoming law.
In March, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy perm sec Alex Chisholm sought and received ministerial direction from business secretary Greg Clark to approve spending of £2.4m for a product safety database, while DIT perm sec Antonia Romeo sought and received trade secretary Liam Fox’s approval for £8.9m to create new watchdog body the Trade Remedies Authority in the same month.
Also the same month, a direction was issued to MHCLG perm sec Melanie Dawes from then housing secretary Sajid Javid to confirm the department would not seek to reclaim £36m paid in error to local authorities taking part in business rate retention pilots.