From education to employment

Ofsted: T levels still a work in progress- Sector Response

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Today Ofsted has published the final thematic review report on T levels and the T Level Transition Programme (TLTP). This found that confidence in teaching is on the rise, but some confusion remains among learners and employers. 

The review was commissioned by the Department for Education (DfE) to assess the early implementation of the new qualifications and follows on from Ofsted’s interim report released in October 2022.

The review shows that when T level learners receive high-quality information, advice, and guidance from experienced teachers, they are more likely to achieve good results and less likely to drop out. However, the initial assessment of students’ abilities at the start of their courses is often weak. 

The practical aspects of courses are generally taught well but teachers often struggle to teach theoretical content in sufficient depth. The quality of industry placements still varies considerably across individual providers and courses, with employers often being poorly informed about the content and structure of T levels. 

Since our last report, the TLTP curriculum has generally improved with many providers showing good enrolment figures, but a large number of students are still not pursuing a T level course when they complete the programme.

Ofsted has issued several recommendations for providers including:

  • Ensuring that students receive accurate information about T-level courses and the TLTP so they can make informed choices before they enrol. 
  • Working more closely and collaboratively with employers to ensure that industry placements and work experience opportunities are more tailored to the courses. 
  • Collaborating with other providers to share resources and best practice to further improve the quality and effectiveness of the curriculum, teaching and the assessment of T-level courses and the TLTP.

Ofsted will inspect T levels as part of their regular inspections from September 2023.

His Majesty’s Chief Inspector, Amanda Spielman, said:

“As with many new qualifications, there are some teething issues with T levels, but in most cases providers and employers seem to be working well together to address them. However, we saw a range of shortcomings which providers and the Department for Education will want to address. 

“When done well, they can be a strong option for learners who prefer a vocational route through education as a path to their intended career.”

Sector response

David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges said:

“The Ofsted Thematic review of T Levels and the T level Transition Programme exposes a programme which is complex and therefore running into understandable implementation issues and glitches. It was always going to be like that because curriculum and qualification reforms and changes are extremely difficult to implement across education. The report therefore effectively endorses our position that whilst we are big supporters of the role T Levels should and need to play in the future, enormous care needs to be taken not to shut down existing opportunities too hastily until the new qualifications are fully-functioning and of the high quality we all want them to be.

Put simply, the risk is too great to shut down funding for qualifications which are working well for learners now in the hope that the new T Levels will be better because we want them to be. Better to wait until the new qualifications are working well before we pull the plug on any existing qualifications.

The report sets out the same challenges that we recommended need addressing in our recent AoC T level and Qualification reform position paper. Too often content is extremely stretching for this level, assessment drives curriculum planning, placements are difficult to resource and reform is happening at too great a speed. On the other hand, the report is full of examples of good practice in colleges and other providers which going forward needs to be shared more widely.

Our recommendation to government is to listen to and act on Ofsted’s recommendations in order to ensure T Levels meet the needs of students, employers and their communities.”

Sixth Form Colleges Association commented:

“This report does a good job of highlighting the significant challenges that we know providers have experienced delivering T levels and the T level transition programme. The government describes T levels as a gold standard qualification that it wants to see as one of two programmes of choice for young people alongside A levels. But this report raises concerns about the effectiveness of the qualification and its potential to be offered at scale. This is particularly important given the government shows no sign of rethinking its reckless plan to scrap most BTECs – the qualification it wants T levels to replace. 

Today’s report is clear that T levels are not yet the gold standard, mass market replacement for BTECs the government believes them to be. It also highlights the dismal record of the T level transition programme, where the vast majority of students do not actually progress to a T level, and the associated risk of relying on this initiative as way of boosting T level participation.  

Ministers need to drop the rhetoric, face the reality and rethink their plans for qualification reform. The government should follow the recommendation from the Protect Student Choice campaign and reverse the plan to scrap BTECs. We all want T levels to succeed, but not at any cost, and leaving tens of thousands of BTEC students without a pathway to higher education or employment is not a price worth paying.” 

Dr Mary Bousted, Joint General Secretary of the NEU, said:

“This review of T-Levels contains serious criticisms of most aspects of the T-Level programmes, and confirms what NEU members, the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign group and most key stakeholders have been saying all along.

“Ofsted concludes that not enough has been done to ensure T-Level courses are fit for purpose. We agree with its warning that the Department for Education must take stock of the consequences to students of withdrawing funds from other tried and tested, valuable courses such as BTECs and Cambridge Nationals.

“Government was repeatedly warned that there were key flaws in the T-Level roll-out, not least the lack of suitable industry placements. These warnings were ignored. The result has been students feeling misled and lacking suitable qualifications to progress to work or further study – and that is unacceptable.

“Everyone in the sector wants high-quality technical and vocational courses for students.  This report shows clearly what the union has said from the beginning, that T-Levels have not met that aspiration and cannot do so in isolation. The DfE needs to have a serious re-think and immediately reverse the proposed de-funding of courses like BTECs and Cambridge Nationals.”

Lisa Morrison Coulthard, Research Director at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) said: 

“The Ofsted report echoes some of the findings from the recent Technical Education Learner Survey including lower rates of satisfaction among the second cohort of T Level learners – particularly health and science students. 

“However, there are some promising signs, with almost all of the first cohort of T Level students completing their placement despite the pandemic and almost half of T Level Transition Programme learners undertaking work experience.

“Given this mixed picture, it is crucial that time is taken to address these teething problems before well-established proven Applied Generals are defunded. Continuing with this plan could have harmful and long-lasting effects on the educational outcomes of young people, especially disadvantaged groups.”

Stewart Watts, VP EMEA at D2L comments:

“As was initially set out by the government, T-Levels were introduced as an alternative to higher education and as part of a wider effort to address the ongoing talent shortage across multiple industries. While it’s great to see that aspects of the qualification are a success, the relationship between businesses and industries will need to become more intertwined to improve the effectiveness and quality of industry placements and courses.

“T-Levels provide an opportunity to tackle the talent deficit, particularly among the more complex digital skills. However, there needs to be stronger partnerships between businesses and education providers to ensure future courses are designed with current challenges in mind. Industry experts should be involved in course design, with regular updates to account for evolving business challenges. Working with industry, the education sector can ensure desirable skills are embedded within its curriculum and delivered across all courses. Similarly, organisations can offer insight into how to design programmes that cater to lifelong learners. That way, employers can incorporate specific skills that are tailored to individual job roles.

“Designing courses in this way takes time. Governments, businesses and educational institutions will have to be patient and constantly review their programmes to ensure student engagement is maximised and that classes adequately prepare students for the world of work. This will only be achieved as schools and businesses continue to work more closely and identify new ways that they can work together and bring these courses to life.” 

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