This week sees the latest National T Levels week celebrated across the country. There has been much activity amongst advocates and supporters of this ‘Next Level Qualification’, but in terms of wider consciousness around T Levels and what their implementation means for the Level 3 qualification landscape, there remains much to do.
Since 2017, ministers have spoken excitedly about T Levels and their potential as a ‘unified technical qualification with equal status to A Levels’. I have written several times previously about how T Levels are the latest attempt to develop greater parity of esteem between academic and vocational qualifications here and here.
The first wave of T Levels were introduced in 2020 and the first qualifications were awarded in August 2022. During this summer, former Skills Minister, Alex Burghart commented how despite initial fears amongst ministers and educationalists, “well over 90 per cent of students” amongst the initial T Level cohort of 1300 had successfully completed their mandatory 315-hour, or 45-day work placements. Set against the backdrop of COVID-19, this appeared to represent no mean achievement. However, Burghart, who like many Conservative ministers was involved in the domino rally of resignations that signified the death knell of Boris Johnson’s Premiership was referring to “internally held data” and The Department for Education (DfE) subsequently confirmed that there was not any published data on T Level work placements and refused to “divulge any further detail” on whether this ‘alleged data’ was based on all T Level students who started their T Levels in 2020 or a proportion of this cohort, such as those who did not drop out. The release of the results of the first T Level cohort did help to shed some further light on things. In total, 1029 learners received results (my maths is somewhat rudimentary, but this would appear to indicate over 20% who started a T Level did not complete it), but the below statistics are impressive:
• 92.2% achieved Pass or above on their T Level.
• 31.9% achieved a Distinction. 2.7% achieved a Distinction*
• 99.5% achieved E or above on their Core component.
• 97.5% achieved a Pass or above on their Occupational Specialism.
• 94% completed an industry placement.
When T Level implementation was announced, it was reported that their introduction would have dire implications for BTEC qualifications. The then Prime Minister, Theresa May – Yes, it was that long ago, commented their introduction would enable Britain to “compete globally” and more recently, Boris Johnson in September 2020 was quoted as how in modern Britain we “have too few” young people with the “right skills for the job our economy creates” whilst also having “too many graduates with “degrees which don’t give them the jobs they want”. In response to this Johnson appeared to be steering young people away from HE in favour of “more practical options (such as T Levels) […] that lead more directly to well-paid jobs.”
However, the government appeared to have underestimated the strength of support within the School, College and HE sectors for the BTEC. The #ProtectStudentChoice campaign led by the Association of Sixth Form Colleges and supported by a coalition of organisations lobbied extremely effectively and by April 2022, the then Education Secretary, Nadim Zahawi announced that “less than half of BTECs” could see funding cut. Having secured over 100,000 signatures via the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, the future of BTECs was also debated in parliament with a number of ministers from both sides of the political divide speaking passionately about the positive impact that BTEC have on supporting the future life chances of young people within their constituencies.
A key aspect in the discourse surrounding Level 3 reform, which appears to have been missed, is the fact that BTECs underwent relatively major surgery in the recent past. This was largely at the behest of the HE sector, elements of which had long decried BTEC students’ inability to cope with some of the demands presented by a traditional degree. These issues intensified when the increasingly marketised nature of the sector meant that more BTEC students than ever were accessing HE, increasingly at selective institutions due to the relaxing of student number controls.
This was something discussed at a recent NEON meeting by Dr Catherine Dilnot; Catherine’s research focused on ‘Educational Choices at 16-19’ and explored outcome gaps by L3 qualification type and socio-economic status. There has been a long-standing correlation between those studying BTEC qualifications and those from the lowest Socio-Economic (SE) backgrounds. In 2015, HESA data showed 41% on entrants to HE who had studied a BTEC came from the four lowest SE groups. In the subsequent years, more students than ever before are studying a blended qualification involving A Levels and BTEC studied alongside one another.
Perhaps most interestingly, the research showed that the gaps regarding graduate outcomes, students having retaking a year and retention rates between A Level students and those studying a combination of A Level and BTEC were significantly smaller than the gap between students who had studied for A Level only and BTEC only. Therefore, the data would appear to support the prevailing notion of the ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign, this being that a greater freedom of choice is of benefit to students, specifically those from lower SE backgrounds. Whereas a return to a tripartite education system offering A Levels, T Levels and Apprenticeships, appears on the surface regressive and a return to the failed Tertiary system of the immediate Post War era.
Returning to T Levels themselves, despite extensive government backing, there currently appears to be something of an issue with regards to awareness of the qualification itself. The Institute of Mechanical Engineering (IMechE) published a poll earlier in the year, which showed there is much to do in terms of raising public awareness of this ‘Next Level Qualification’. The IMechE’s research showed a number of areas for concern:
- Only 1 in 5 (18%) had heard of T Levels
- Around 70% said they knew little about them
Thankfully, the research did show that awareness is highest amongst parents and carers of 16–18-year-olds, with 39% having some awareness. However, put bluntly, over 60% of the parents and carers of the target cohort appear to know little or nothing about this “brilliant alternative to A Levels”.
Whilst working on this piece, I did a little exercise on LinkedIn, which appeared to confirm that raising awareness of T Levels is of utmost importance. At the outset of the week, there were 6 followers of the hashtag #tlevelsweek on LinkedIn. By the point of proofing, this had increased, but only to 12 followers. An overwhelming majority of my network will work within schools, colleges, third sector organisations and universities. As such, this is somewhat worrying.
T Levels are not the first vocational qualification introduced amidst much fanfare as “a brilliant alternative to A Levels”, with those championing the qualification highlighting how they’ll equip “young people with the technical and practical skills needed to succeed in the workplace”. As stated in previous pieces, it evokes memories of the ill-fated Diploma qualification, which like T Levels were also heralded as a solution to ‘skills shortages’ and an opportunity to bring new talent into business. One hopes that if Labour were to win the next General Election, they would not toss T Levels into the dustbin of history with the same fervour that the Coalition did with the Diploma, as the people who suffer most are the young people studying these qualifications.
For several years, we have seen much criticism from business and governments around young people and more recently graduates being unprepared for the world of work. Indeed, a piece of analysis published in 2019 “identified around 20 providers where at least three quarters of all students are still not earning enough to start repaying their loans five years after graduation”. The current government is not the first to measure the value of qualifications in largely monetarist terms, but I am always troubled by statements such as ‘skills shortages’ and how a new qualification will enable “success in the workplace”. The cynic in me thinks these qualifications are merely the latest attempt to provide cheap labour for identified ‘development’ sectors or local growth sectors. It will be interesting to see how many employers beyond local government, the NHS and those in receipt of government contracts within industries such as Construction are fully behind T Levels.
When conducting research around #tlevels week on LinkedIn, I found a few interesting articles explaining and promoting the qualification, one of which from Anthony Carr highlighted how:
“Not everyone knows what they want to do at the age of 16, in fact I would argue most do not know. T Levels can cover both bases”
There is no disputing the validity of the first point, but I would argue that the reformed BTEC and the increasing number of students studying a blended qualification profile of A Level and BTEC offers a greater degree of choice for students. Whereas T Levels seem to offer a clear and coherent pathway into a particular industry/career space. There’s nothing at all wrong with this, but it needs to be clearly articulated to students. In the past, too many students have been failed by a system that promises something that doesn’t deliver – e.g. The Diploma. Many are under the impression that T Levels lead to university progression, but the composition of a T Level is equivalent to three A Levels/BTECs and therefore rules out the blended qualification choice which has proved increasingly popular amongst 16–18-year-olds in recent years.
A key component of the T Level and what appears to differentiate it from A Levels and some of the popular (academic) preconceptions of BTECs is the placement element. This again is playing to the long-discussed area of the skills agenda, ensuring that young people are work-ready and go on to have rewarding careers which support economic growth.
From a university perspective, we are aware of how much of a battle it has been to challenge outdated preconceptions amongst academics and Admissions staff regarding BTECs. As Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since 2018, myself and colleagues have obviously been strong supporters of the #ProtectStudentChoice’ campaign, but we are also realistic. T Levels are here and as such, we have shifted our focus slightly to be inclusive of their arrival. We have changed the name of our Group ‘Supporting Access, Success and Progression of Vocational Students’ and as part of our plans for forthcoming meetings, we have invited speakers from industry to give their view on T Levels and their benefits, alongside views from inside FE and HE institutions.
For T Levels to truly represent a next level qualification, we need to really think about the age-old distinction between academic and vocational education. As UCAS Executive Director, John Cope commented in an article in HEPI’s publication ‘Holding Talent Back – What is next for the future of Level 3’ “Every education minister in living memory has said at some point they wanted to bring parity of esteem to apprenticeships, higher education and technical education […] Not many genuinely moved us towards it.” When we look at the situation in Germany for example, it provides a stark contrast, as Professor Hubert Ertl states in the aforementioned HEPI publication “In Germany, vocational education and training has long been an important pathway for young people from school to work” resulting in “consistently one of the lowest youth unemployment rates – European rate of 5.8 per cent in 2019 compared to a UK rate of 11.2 per cent”. Alongside this, vocational qualifications also offer an important stepping-stone to higher education in Germany. With 22% of entrants to HE in Germany holding a full, state-recognised initial vocational qualification”. Until we fully commit to providing genuine parity of esteem between these qualification types in England, we will continually be facing the same struggle.