The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) has published its second research report into T-levels reports FE Week.
It follows a roundtable event in October which included six providers due to deliver the new qualifications from September 2020, as well as government and sector body representatives.
The first report, published in June, was based on interviews with half of the first 50 T-level approved providers.
FE Week has pulled out the latest key findings…
1.Providers will have just six months to work out how to teach T-levels
The full specification for T-levels will not be available until March 2020, which leaves just six months for the first three pathways – childcare, digital and construction – to be made ready for teaching, including the summer break.
This was a “cause for concern” among providers and it was commented that while the childcare T-level will need less work to prepare, as it is similar to the CACHE level 3 diploma in childcare and education, the construction and digital pathways “included more content that was completely new for providers”.
2. Major work needed to raise awareness
“Delegates felt there remained significant work to do to raise the awareness and understanding of T-levels among young people, parents and carers, and employers,” the report reads.
This is despite the best efforts of the ‘NexT Level’, a campaign costing the taxpayer over £3 million to help recruit the first wave of learners for T-levels.
Providers said that without the detailed specifications they could not always answer students’ and employers’ more detailed questions about the qualifications.
3. WANTED: Learners for T-levels
Providers were positive about meeting their student recruitment targets, but this was because “they had set conservative targets which they felt were achievable”.
There were, however, concerns regarding school “protectionism” which is making it a struggle to promote T-levels in schools with sixth forms.
And learners could be put off by “the size of the qualification”: young people who rely on part-time jobs or had caring responsibilities would find it difficult to meet the 600 minimum guided learning hours requirement as well as the 315 hour minimum industry placement.
It was brought up that how those 600 hours would be spent, being instructed towards an exam-based assessment, would not attract students looking for workshop-style delivery and continuous assessment.
The question of how learners from rural areas could get transport to class and to their industry placement was also listed as a “concern”.
4. Industry placements need more flexibility
One of the most controversial aspects of T-levels is the requirement for learners to go on a 315-hour industry placement; the previous NFER roundtable found providers were concerned about a lack of viable placements.
Recognising the challenge, the Department for Education introduced flexibilities earlier this year, including allowing the placements to be taken with two different employers.
However, educators have called for further flexibility in what counted towards the industry placement; specifically, they wanted project-based learning and work-related learning to count towards it.
The NFER said: “This would enable the engagement of employers who lacked capacity to support a placement and did not have a physical base,” namely digital businesses.
5. WANTED: Staff for T-levels
Challenges in attracting staff from the construction, digital and engineering sectors will be “particularly severe,” says the report, because their industries can pay higher salaries.
Another hurdle providers spoke about was keeping staff’s industrial knowledge and skills up to scratch; an issue some providers have addressed by setting up a bank of freelance staff they can draw on to deliver part of the digital T-level.
6. Will completing a T-level enable learners to progress on to a level 4 apprenticeship?
T-levels’ “lack of” occupational competencies – the knowledge, skills and attributes for a vocational career – has raised doubts about whether learners completing the new qualification will be able to progress on to a level 4 apprenticeship.
This was particularly the case in technical and practically-orientated apprenticeships like construction and engineering, and will put a dent in “an important selling point for T-levels”: the size and scale of the industry placement.
It will also be up to universities whether they accept T-levels, which carry UCAS tariff points. There were questions over whether the Russell Group would accept them, which may influence other universities and could “tarnish” T-levels in the minds of parents.
7. Could T-levels be a block on social mobility?
The requirement for learners to have a grade four at GCSE maths and English was seen as a barrier to accessing T-levels, according to the NFER.
And the scale of the guided learning hours requirement and the industry placement is, as highlighted earlier, anticipated to be a problem for learners with part-time jobs or caring responsibilities.
As the specialist focus of T-levels and its exam-based assessment will not suit all learners, providers instead want the level 3 vocational and technical offer to “continue to provide young people with a range of options and learning styles, as well as broader vocational study”.
On that point…
8. Providers plea for BTECs and other AGQs to stay
“T-levels are heralded as ‘gold standard’ qualifications but applied general qualifications are an established route with a licence to practice,” the report reads.
Yet earlier this year the government launched a consultation on withdrawing funding for thousands of AGQs, ahead of T-levels’ introduction.
There remain “some concerns” around what is going to happen to BTEC/Cambridge Assessment level 3 vocational students “if some or all of these qualifications are discontinued and what might be the unintended consequences”.
It was felt at the roundtable, which was attended by a Department for Education representative, that the breadth and specialisation of AGQs and T-levels were different enough “that different types of qualifications can thrive alongside each other”.
When asked for a response, the DfE pointed out they had recently launched their T-level campaign to increase awareness and said it is working closely with HE providers and their decisions around admissions policies will be made in due course.