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T Level action plan, Sector Reaction

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The Department for Education (DfE) has today released its plan to further support and expand T Levels, as part of their ongoing commitment to transform technical education and create a high-quality, streamlined system that meets the needs of students, employers, and the wider economy.

T Levels were implemented in 2020 to raise the quality and prestige of technical education following the publication of the Post-16 Skills Plan in 2016. T Levels are DfE’s flagship two-year technical qualifications for 16–19-year-olds. They offer students practical and knowledge-based learning at a school or college and on-the-job experience through an industry placement of at least 315 hours – approximately 45 days. They are based on content developed by employers, ensuring that the qualifications meet the needs of industry and give students a head-start in their chosen career.

T Levels are now in their fourth year of delivery. Providers have worked closely with employers to grow T Levels – student starts increased by 58% between September 2022 and September 2023, to over 16,000 – almost as many than the first three cohorts combined. Provider numbers are up 55% to over 250, with many more due to start delivery in September 2024.

The number of T Levels on offer also continues to grow. As of September 2023, which saw the introduction of two more T Level routes (Legal Services and Agriculture, Land Management and Production), there are now 18 T Levels available. In September 2024 T Levels in Media, Broadcast and Production; Craft and Design; and Animal Care and Management are being rolled out. The Marketing T Level will go live in September 2025 and bring the total number of T Levels to 22.

T Levels are part of wider reforms designed to ensure that England has a high-quality and streamlined technical education system. These reforms are underpinned by the key principles of quality, purpose, necessity, and progression as part of building an employer-led skills system.

DfE will remove public funding from qualifications that overlap with T Levels, beginning in August 2024. This will help to simplify the market and ensure as many 16–19-year-olds as possible benefit from the high-quality education offered by T Levels. Each phase of reform has and will be carefully and rigorously carried out. This involves consultation with experts from relevant employers, the education sector, and awarding organisations. DfE expects T Level student numbers to grow as funding is removed from overlapping technical qualifications and additional T Level subjects are rolled out.

DfE’s reforms also include changes to qualifications at level 2. These reforms will ensure all qualifications at this level are high-quality, have a clear purpose and lead to better outcomes for students, whether progression to level 3 study or directly into skilled employment at level 2. While DfE would like as many students as possible to progress to level 3, they also want to improve outcomes for those students who leave education at level 2. Technical qualifications at level 2 will, in future, be aligned to employer-led occupational standards to make sure they equip students with the knowledge, skills and behaviours employers value.

The department continues to value and act on feedback from providers and employers to support delivery of T Levels and the T Level Foundation Year (TLFY). This document outlines the support available to students, providers, and employers. It sets out how DfE wants to improve access, uptake and quality of T Levels, and their plans to continue to work with all involved with delivery as they continue to roll out this new and ambitious programme.

DfE is taking a number of new actions to build upon their existing support:

  1. In 2024, DfE has already taken action to support the costs of delivering T Levels for providers by distributing £50 million more capital equipment funding and extending the 10% per student funding uplift for 2024/25.
  2. To further support teachers in the classroom DfE has extended the T Level professional development (TLPD) programme, delivered by the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), for two additional years until summer 2026. DfE has evolved this and other support programmes to facilitate the dissemination of growing T Level expertise and experience through additional resources, networks and mentoring activities. DfE is also building a one-stop-shop website to make it easy for teachers to access resources produced by different organisations.
  3. To support access and retention DfE is undertaking a route-by-route review of T Level content and assessment. Where appropriate, and without compromising the rigour of T Levels, the breadth of content and burden of assessment may be changed to ensure it is manageable at scale and continues to support student access to T Levels. Separately, following the conclusions of this review, DfE will explore the existing requirement to sit all core exam papers together, and consider flexibilities, including the feasibility of allowing providers to balance their curriculum delivery across the two years.
  4. DfE is supporting providers to recruit students with a new 2024 ‘Skills for Life’ national communications campaign featuring cinema, TV, and billboard advertising, including spotlighting of T Levels. DfE can also confirm that this year’s national T Level Celebration Week will be held from Monday 2 to Friday 6 December 2024 – providing an opportunity to promote and celebrate T Levels across the country.
  5. DfE knows how important clear progression routes are, which is why they are supporting more accelerated apprenticeships and pathways from T Levels. Over 160 higher education providers already accept T Level students onto at least one course. DfE will continue to work with universities to develop their understanding of T Levels, so they recognize the value and rigour of the qualification, opening up larger and larger numbers of higher education courses to T Level students.
  6. To enable the scale up of industry placements DfE is further stepping up their communications to employers on the benefits of T Levels. Their new ‘Skills for Life’ campaign has a significant employer strand promoting the value of investing in skills. DfE is complementing this with a new contact centre campaign in Spring 2024 reaching up to 39,000 SMEs (Small and Medium Enterprises), and embedding T Level awards into the high profile, business facing, National Apprenticeships Awards. New resources from the Strategic Development Network (SDN) will support easier engagement between providers and employers, learning from what has worked well in the first years of T Level roll out.

This commitment to world-class technical education and the work being done to implement and embed T Levels in the sector continues with the introduction of the Advanced British Standard (ABS) qualification framework. The ABS will take the best of T Levels and A levels and bring them together into a single, unified structure, ensuring technical and academic education are placed on an equal footing. T Levels and the T Level Foundation Year will continue to be on offer for students aged 16-19-years-old until the ABS is rolled out, with additional subjects being rolled out over the coming academic years. Removal of funding from overlapping technical qualifications is also continuing as planned. DfE will continue grow and iterate T Levels as part of the path to the ABS over the next decade, ensuring students receive the very best technical education which enables them to progress successfully into high-quality, long-term jobs and careers.

Sector Reaction

James Kewin, Deputy Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association said:

“Today’s action plan confirms that the number of students studying a T level remains very low. Although the government has invested £1.8 billion in these flagship qualifications, this fourth year of enrolment data indicates that around 26,285 of the 1.2 million 16 to 18 year old students in England are currently studying a T level.  

“Ministers must draw two important conclusions from this report. First, their plan to scrap applied general qualifications like BTECs and replace them with T levels is dead in the water. There are approximately 280,000 students studying at least one applied general qualification and 26,285 students studying a T level. Even if the plan to replace the former with the latter was the right one, the numbers simply do not stack up (particularly as BTECs will start to be scrapped from next year) and will leave an enormous qualifications gap that tens of thousands of students will fall through. Ministers have previously suggested that students in this position will be able to complete the T Level Foundation Year before progressing to a T level; the latest figures in this action plan show that only 8% of Foundation Year students actually do so, a fall from 15% for the previous cohort.

    “And second, in their current guise, T levels only appeal to a very small group of young people and must be reformed to ensure that all T level students get a fair deal. This will require a more flexible approach to the 45 day industry replacement and a broader review of content and assessment that involves genuinely listening to the views of students, the education sector and employers. The fact that 34% of T level students do not complete their course, and 20% switched to another course underlines the urgent need for reform. The equivalent numbers for A level students are 12% and 6%.

    “The #ProtectStudentChoice campaign is delighted that the Labour party and Liberal Democrats have made a commitment to pause and review the disastrous plan to scrap most BTECs and replace them with T levels. It is now time for the government to make the same commitment. “

    Catherine Sezen, Director of Education Policy, Association of Colleges, said: 

    “It’s great to see that T Level starts have increased by more than half between September 2022 and September 2023. We know colleges account of more than 80% of these enrolments and are leading the way in ensuring these new qualifications deliver for young people.   

    “For some students, T Levels are absolutely the right qualification to take, and colleges have reported great success on student pathways into industry and higher education. However, we have been clear that T Levels are not for every student wanting to study a Level 3 vocational or technical qualification, and that the speed at which they are being rolled out alongside the scrapping of BTECs and other applied general qualifications is misguided. There continue to be issues around industry placements, how T levels are promoted to parents, employers and student, and content and assessment that need to be addressed, and we are in discussion with the DfE to ensure these aspects are refined.” 

    Anne Murdoch, Senior Adviser in College Leadership at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

    “There are several areas of concern around the rollout of T levels. The number of enrollments, while growing, are still relatively small and the retention rate is worryingly low. Schools and colleges are still uncertain about exactly what qualifications they can offer in 2026, with T levels not covering all subjects and some being scrapped before ever seeing the light of day.

    “Implementing a brand new qualifications system is not simple, and the difficulties the Department for Education are having are understandable to some extent. What is unforgivable is the rush to dispense with tried and tested BTECs and other qualifications before T levels have been properly embedded. There is a risk that many students will be left without a viable post-16 pathway.

    “It may well be that T levels are ultimately successful and boost skills education in the way the government is hoping, although plans for the Advanced British Standard have already cast doubt on their longevity. But by sweeping away other, popular vocational qualifications, the government is gambling with the futures of thousands of young people.”

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