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What are T levels and what will they mean for theatre?

Production arts student at Mountview. Photo: Ruler, Thisisruler
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New two-year technical programmes are planned to equip young people for employment. Susan Elkin gauges opinion on how the courses will work, and whether students and the theatre industry will benefit

Post-16 education is full of programmes and acronyms. We’ve all heard of BTec, IB and AS levels. A levels have been with us for decades. Now it’s time for T levels. Scheduled to start in autumn 2020 – so mostly for students currently in Year 10 and embarking this term on GCSE or equivalent – T levels are the newest horse in the stable.

Announced by the government in May this year, T levels are two-year technical programmes, designed with employers. The aim is to give young people the skills that industry – that’s all industry, of course – needs. Substantial funding is promised: £38 million capital funding in the first instance, rising to £500 million.

There are 11 subject categories, one of which is Creative and Design. Will this impact on the performing arts industries, which still report skills shortages in technical theatre and other backstage work? Cue for cautious optimism.

“It is certainly a very welcome step to offer students aged 16–18 more vocational routes to study in technical areas,” says Paul Rummer, principal of Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, which has an extensive production arts department.

The National Theatre’s technical director Jonathan Suffolk is broadly positive too: “The National Theatre supports any initiative that seeks to recognise technical education as having the same value as its academic equivalent, and the T levels offer a fantastic opportunity to attract a more diverse group of young people, who might not previously have considered working in the theatre industry.”

But problems are anticipated in both delivery and relevance. “At the moment, T levels do not seem to be directly aimed at theatre training, except maybe the Creative and Design one, and this may be reflective of the reduction in schools’ education in all arts areas,” suggests Geraint Pughe, head of production arts at Mountview.

T Levels will commence in 2020, in the first instance with just three of the eventual nine subject areas. Only Digital, Construction and Education and Childcare will be available initially, and then only in 52 selected schools, further education and sixth form colleges across England. “It looks as if there is a way to go before the Creative and Design standards will be completed,” says Rummer. “Certain media and technical production occupations have been covered, but it seems backstage theatre occupations fare less well.”

T levels are intended to run alongside and support apprenticeship schemes such as the well-established ones at the National Theatre, Royal Opera House and many other companies. The Institute for Apprenticeships, the lead body in the management of T levels, is to change its name to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in 2020.

What apprenticeships are available in theatre?

The broad structure of T levels is common across all of the subjects. Each of the courses is planned to include three central components: underpinning theory relating to the chosen industry, occupationally specialist skills and a 45-working-day industry placement with a suitable employer.

It’s the practicalities of the latter issue that are causing the most concern to Suffolk. “We are concerned by the challenges of delivering high quality and lengthy work placements, particularly outside London, within relatively short production time frames, and the impact this may have on other experiential opportunities,” he explains. “That’s why the National is working closely with partners across the sector, discussing how we can best support and deliver what is an ambitious education policy.”

Rummer is heartened by the involvement at consultation level of employers such as Ambassador Theatre Group, the Association of Sound Designers, CCSkills, the National and White Light. Both he and Pughe think that long term this could benefit the sorts of students drama schools can attract to its technical theatre courses.

“For drama schools running production arts courses at HE level, knowing that applicants will have a more consistent vocational educational background can only be welcome,” says Rummer.

“Preparing students with a vocational mind-set must be beneficial to courses like ours, which demand a willingness to be trained for the world of work,” agrees Pughe.

Colleges will, though, go on looking for people with the right attitude and level of commitment, regardless of what certificates they hold. “We can teach them the skills they need to be employable in a range of industries, often building on experience they will have gained at school,” Pughe says. “But they also need to make the most of what we can offer, and that means they must be enthusiastic for the work and committed to it and the learning that supports it.”

The flaw in the generally welcome T levels initiative may yet prove to be the rigid determination at government level to fit every subject into the same structural template – a common policy in education – which may not work across the board. Every subject has its own specific requirements. Suffolk’s point about the required 45-day work placement and the timespan theatres have for each show is just one example of how this could be a major sticking point for the industry.

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