Towards a Comprehensive 14-19 Curriculum – Not Tory T-Levels

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A bigger, braver and more rounded curriculum that is truly broad and balanced, is a longstanding aim of progressive educationalists. Bolstered by a National Education Service (NES) the aim of the next Labour government, if it has the courage to take on the siren voices of the right now embedded in the education establishment and the media, has to be exactly that. This means implementing, in the 14 to 19 phase, a unified developmental curriculum, where the academic and vocational are equally valued. At its heart, it should be developing the skills and knowledge in our young people, necessary to engage fully with the the modern world in a critical and reflective way. Communication in all its facets, problem-solving, collaboration, critical thinking and reflection must feature. It must also be flexible and personalised, allowing young people to choose courses which suit their aspirations and interests. Finally, the assessment model should recognise the achievements of all learners, including those with special educational needs (SENDs), rather than segregate them through crude pass/fail measures. We have been close to achieving the above on occasion, notably the Tomlinson reforms proposed in 2004 and the short lived curriculum 2000 agenda.

A progressive 14 to 19 curriculum must:

● develop the knowledge, skills, attitudes and dispositions to enable young people to be responsible citizens and independent thinkers. Students should be prepared for employment, competent to make choices and learn throughout their lives.

● prepare 19 year olds to progress to employment or continue in education, with useful social and learning skills and qualifications that are valuable and understood by both employers and education institutions;

● be sufficiently engaging to retain young people at risk of leaving education, employment and training.

The Tories initiated the Sainsbury Review which they have accepted in full. Currently, Labour has accepted it too. The Sainsbury Review was flawed from the beginning as its terms of reference only included ‘technical education and qualifications’ as opposed to ‘academic’ GCSEs and A-Levels which would continue their role in selecting the elite to run the establishment, untouched. Further, it only considered post 16 study and was therefore prevented, unlike Tomlinson, from recommending courses and programmes pre-16 to provide progression onto more vocational routes post 16. It is now the case that pupils at Key Stage 4 have to meet tough entrance criteria based on success in academic GCSEs to be able to study A level. If they do not meet them they are ‘guided’ into vocational courses like BTECs or into apprenticeships. Vocational courses are often not, therefore, a positive choice for students but a fall back reluctantly undertaken because they have ‘failed’ in their academic courses. The government’s insistence on ever higher proportions of pupils taking the EBacc combination of subjects at GCSE will further reinforce the perception that vocational courses are only for those not bright enough to succeed academically.

The new Tory T-Levels, proposed for post-16 study and arising from the Sainsbury Review, maintain and reinforce the existing academic vocational divide.  There are many similarities between the Tories’ new T-Levels and the ill-fated ‘diplomas’ which New Labour, at great expense, failed to make a permanent feature of 14 to 19 education in the noughties. The same employment areas with slightly amended names will become available for study at T-Level e.g. Business and Administration. Again, as with the diploma, when students opt to take a T-Level they will find there is no room for other options. Like the old diplomas they are all encompassing and will contain elements of English and Maths no doubt ‘relevant to the sector’, taking students to higher skill levels than GCSE. Again, similar to the diploma, colleges and now some schools, have to show they have the expertise and resources to deliver the T-Level and have to gain approval before offering it.

In New Labour’s case the Diploma, which ended up covering vocational subjects only, arose out of a cowardly political decision not to implement the Tomlinson report which would have meant incorporating A-Levels and GCSEs as well as vocational qualifications into the new diplomas. An imaginative implementation of Tomlinson would have allowed students to mix and match academic and vocational elements. Fear of the right-wing media’s reaction, in the lead up to an election, was the reason. The right focused, as they continue to do, on Labour being soft on standards. What they presented as the abolition of A-Levels, they claimed, was strong evidence of this. The achievement of students more suited to vocational study was not their concern. Instead of incorporating A-Levels into Tomlinson’s new diplomas, new Labour would allow A-Levels, so strongly rooted in post-16 academic education in the minds of middle-class parents and favoured by the Russell Group, to simply ‘wither on the vine’. Ed Balls claimed diplomas would become the ‘qualification of choice’. The NUT at the time were right. They saw the decision as a clear reversal by the government saying ‘the decision to ditch Tomlinson’s 14-19 reform proposals was fundamentally wrong’. It was wrong because it would perpetuate the arbitrary academic-vocational divide and the perceived low status of vocational education. The proposed new diplomas, unlike Tomlinson’s originals, were not as inclusive either. The new Labour foundation diploma was still well beyond the reach of many SEND learners. It was also wrong too, because the chance of creating a qualification framework accessible throughout life, which would have been so suited to a National Education Service, was missed.

In contrast, the day after its publication, the Tories announced that they had accepted the Sainsbury Review in full. Its recommendations are being progressed via the government’s Post-16 Skills Plan. Accordingly, there has been no consultation about the merits or otherwise of the Sainsbury recommendations (including it has to be said in the Labour Party).

While unsurprisingly welcomed by the Association of Colleges (AoC), which may well see benefit in the assumption that FECs will deliver the new T-level qualifications, there have been wider criticisms including of the implication that certain routes are associated with particular qualifications, the requirement for students to choose routes at 16 and the suggestion that students who want to transfer onto ‘academic routes will have to spend time ‘transitioning’ from one pathway to another. Currently students can choose a combination of advanced vocational (often BTECs) and academic qualifications. In 2017 the number of university students with BTECs has doubled since 2008 to more than 100,000. At the government insistence rigorous external examinations now form part of the qualification, so this puts paid to the argument that BTECs are chosen because they are an easy option. The rushed introduction of T-Levels and the recent refusal to continue funding BTECs looks suspiciously like cutting off a route to university favoured by students coming from families without university experience. It also looks like a deliberate attempt to reduce student numbers, university places and even the number of universities.

T-levels have been criticised as being ill-thought out and for which schools, colleges, students and employers are ill-prepared. The simplistic claims made in the Sainsbury Review that T-Levels will lead to certain jobs have also been debunked as unrealistic and far-removed from the real world in which vocational qualifications are already studied by many students and where so-called academic routes often include vocational and technical education and vice-versa.

“Students, parents and employers will not buy-in to T-levels which are cobbled together and are only targeted at young people. Quite rightly, qualifications in the UK are not age-dependent and need to be fit for study for people of all ages including those who want to return to improve their career options later in life. The challenges of improving the UK’s productivity and skills base will not be met without a lot more work, resources and joined-up thinking.”

T-Levels in some subjects are being piloted but concerns continue to be raised e.g. the requirement to undertake lengthy, local industrial placements (a particular challenge in rural areas[1]) and the refusal of the Department for Education (DfE) to fund students’ transport costs.

The SEA’s position

Labour’s support for separate vocational and academic pathways has frequently been referred to since the 2017 election. For example, both Jeremy Corbyn and Angela Rayner referred to the value of separate pathways at the launch of Labour’s Life-long learning Commission. Labour’s apparently unquestioning support for the Sainsbury Review’s recommendations, including the development of T-levels and the Tory idea that vocational courses are only delivered by colleges and not by schools, other providers and universities – or by collaboration and partnerships between institutions – is also problematic.

The first T-Levels are due to be launched in 2020. Other than criticising the timetable for implementation, it appears that Labour is effectively supporting the Conservatives ‘two-pathway’ agenda without considering the options or whether and how this agenda aligns with a ‘cradle to grave’ NES or the Party’s ambitions to deliver a green economy. To ignore this issue would be to once again mean that Labour would miss the opportunity of a lifetime.

The Tories are being far more ruthless in introducing T levels than New Labour was with its diplomas, which were always second best any way. Hinds has even overruled the Civil Service who have pleaded with him not to go ahead in 2020 because the relevant preparations have not been completed. The introduction of T-Levels will cement the partition between academic and vocational study up to age 18 and beyond because students will not be able to take A levels alongside them. The decision to withdraw funding for applied general qualifications like BTECs will prevent students pursuing a mix of vocational and academic qualifications post-16 and affect university admissions.

Despite its age the Tomlinson agenda which would have:

  • revolutionised assessment reducing the number of exams taken;
  • allowed for students to take assessments when they were ready rather than at a particular age;
  • allowed for students to take either specialised vocational or academic courses, as well as a mix between the two, from age 14 effectively abolishing the vocational/academic divide once and for all;
  • included all learners;
  • provided a qualification framework accessible throughout life.

It remains the basis or a model for any radical reform of the 14 to 19 phase of education.


The SEA should propose that the next Labour government:

  1. Immediately cancel the implementation of T-Levels should it be elected soon, and continue the current mix of academic and vocational qualifications until a new review can be completed
  2. Remove the EBacc ambition from performance tables
  3. Immediately set up a new review which essentially builds on and updates Tomlinson for the NES. No need to reinvent the wheel. The scope of the review must look at the whole 14 to 19 phase within the context of the new NES. It must meet the needs of all learners. It must end the academic/vocational divide. It must have a ‘climbing frame’ approach to assessment recognising the level a learner reaches however high or low that is. It must allow learners to ‘climb’ higher at later points in their lives.
  4. The SEA to organise a seminar entitled “Tomlinson for the Twenties” to help facilitate this radical agenda.

This opinion piece was Co-Authored by James Whiting (SEA General Secretary), Ian Duckett (Treasurer), Pam Tatlow (NEC member). Thank you for contributing to the conversation on this crucial aspect of education policy.



  1. Thoroughly endorse this policy suggestion, vocational and academic pathways should not be separated out! Thoughtful and encouraging work!


    1. i totally agree. another oportunity lost. i hope you will leave a robust reply to the questions being asked regarding the two new streams of technical and academic qualifications.
      author of slaves to a spurious division and time for tomlinson. [published in the Guardian 1992/2004]


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