LAT recognised nationally by TES for its trail-blazing T Level programmes

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Despite growing interest in T levels from schools, numerous barriers still exist to more doing the same, as Dan Worth discovers

In February, the Department for Education (DfE) released data on T-level providers that showed 153 schools – classed as academies, maintained schools or local authority sixth-form colleges – will offer the qualification from September 2024.

This means schools will account for just under half of the 367 settings offering T levels from September 2024, which also includes further education colleges, university technical colleges (UTCs), agricultural and horticultural colleges, and independent learning providers, marking four years of growth:

  • 2020 – 43 providers
  • 2021 – 102 providers
  • 2022 – 164 providers
  • 2023 – 250 providers

Unsurprisingly, this growth has also led to an increase in T-level graduates – from 991 in 2022 to 3,448 in 2023.

Rising interest and dropout rates

However, DfE data shows that 5,210 students were enrolled for a T level at the start of 2021, meaning about a third dropped out before their 2023 graduation.

The DfE defended the dropout rate with a spokesperson saying it is “quite normal for students to switch to different courses after enrolment as their decisions about potential future careers change” – but added that it was “working with providers and other partners to understand more about what can be done to improve retention” for T levels.

Given this, and with 10,200 students having started a T level in 2022, the DfE will be hoping to see as many of those as possible graduating this summer.

Meanwhile, with more courses coming online, such as legal services and agriculture, and land management and production, the number of students who started courses in 2023 surged to more than 16,000 – something Luke Hall, minister for skills, apprenticeships and higher education, said showed that “T levels are fast becoming a route to success for young people”.

So what do the schools already offering T levels think of their implementation so far, and why were they keen to be at the vanguard of this new qualification? Tes spoke to schools and multi-academy trusts to find out:

1. Thorpe St Andrew School, Norwich

We’ve had T levels in digital and education for two years, and started one in management and administration in 2023.  Getting employers on board has been our biggest challenge. We are battling for places against traditional apprenticeships, and companies don’t necessarily know what T levels are so have been a bit hesitant about the lengthy placements.  But the management and administration course opens the door for a broad scope of employers, and we have secured placements with the NHS and are in contact with marketing companies. One really important thing for us and for our provider, City & Guilds, is that teachers have the relevant skills to teach this – so all of ours have industry experience.

Millie Heighway, assistant curriculum leader

2. Poole High School, Dorset

We started our first T levels in finance and accounting in September 2023. We delayed our application to see if the curriculum would gain traction with local employers.  Our proximity to financial service firms is an advantage. We’ve started with 10 students and one local investment bank has offered the whole cohort the work experience they need.  On the teaching side, our subject experts have had a good level of communication with the exam boards, which has been essential to ensure the depth of subject knowledge is pitched appropriately.  Given the diverse backgrounds of our first cohort and the risk of these existing as a “curriculum island” in the school, we made deliberate efforts to integrate our students into sixth-form life through tutor groups, enrichment programmes and use of social spaces.

Steven Hicks, assistant headteacher, and head of sixth form and personal development; and Emma Wyatt, director of vocational education and head of business studies

3. Ada Lovelace Church of England High School, Ealing

We’d become a bit disillusioned with the higher education market, which promises career advancement as the trade-off for student loans and the acquisition of debt.  Some aspects of T levels are very positive and it has been good to make connections with large employers to understand the skillset they want. For example, one employer partner is IBM, which is keen to increase opportunities for young people to gain technical and professional workplace skills. Parents have really bought into this and attendance at a parents’ evening about T levels was 96 per cent.

Dame Alice Hudson, chief executive of Twyford Church of England Academies Trust, and Matt Cowing, deputy head of Ada Lovelace Church of England High School

4. Leigh Academies Trust

We started offering T levels as we wanted to ensure there was a good breadth of options for students beyond traditional academic routes.  Currently, we have six schools delivering T-level programmes in digital, finance, health, engineering, business administration and early years education, and 323 pupils have applied to start T levels in September 2024, in addition to current students.  We will also expand our offering from September 2025, with 11 Leigh Academies Trust schools offering T levels. Media broadcast and production, legal and catering T levels will become available then, too.  Key to our success has been the appointment of an experienced trust T-level adviser, regular opportunities to collaborate and share best practice, as well as participation in training and networking events at a local and national level. Business breakfasts and employer engagement events have enabled us to showcase the benefits of T levels and secure industry placements for all of our students.

Simon Beamish, chief executive

Pros and cons

These are clearly the sort of impacts that those schools joining the list of T-level providers are hoping to see – and it is worth noting that an Ofsted report on T-level delivery, last July, found plenty of positives with T levels when the system works.  “At their best, T levels provide an opportunity to combine high-quality study of theory with excellent development of practical skills,” it read.

It also noted that “physical resources used to support the teaching of T-level courses are good in most providers” and that many T levels have been introduced after “extensive engagement with employers and as part of a well-considered curriculum planning process”.  Unfortunately, the report found areas of concern too – not least from students, some of whom report that courses are “not at all what [they] expected”, with many feeling “misled and ill-informed about their content and structure”.

Linked to this was Ofsted’s finding that there are issues around “recruiting and retaining staff who have the required experience and expertise” to teach subjects, especially as they can often be “complex and demanding” courses.  “Many providers still struggle to recruit and retain appropriately qualified and experienced staff,” it noted.

The need for staff trained to deliver T levels is something Harprit Rhode, deputy headteacher for outcomes at Q3 Academy Tipton, which offers Btecs, agrees is a hurdle to T-level uptake.  “The biggest issue with T levels is the upskilling of staff,” she tells Tes. “There’s a whole thing about workload, [and] getting staff skilled on T levels would be a lot of work, especially for a setting like ours with nearly 1,800 students – that’s very difficult to make work logistically.”

45-day placement problems

This leads to another big issue – the requirement for 45-day industry placements.  For some this has gone well. Ruth Coyle – director of admissions, careers and technical education at La Retraite Roman Catholic Girls’ School in Clapham Park, London – notes that her school has formed partnerships with Lloyds Banking Group for its digital students and with BBC, ITV, Netflix, and Pearl & Dean for its media course starting in September: “Once you’ve got a link with one [employer] they spread the word,” she adds.

However, for others, this has been less straightforward, with the Ofsted report noting that for many settings, “finding suitable placements is a barrier to increasing the number of T-level places”. It also noted that even if the placements are found, the quality “varies considerably”.  Rhode agrees that the need to find such long placements is off-putting: “The fact they’ve got to go out for a placement for 45 days, and all the additional work and timetabling that requires, is very difficult”.

It is also a reason why Millfield School’s deputy head (academic), Alexandra Haydon, says the school has shunned T levels, even though it offers Btecs.  “The main disadvantage of T levels is the 45-day work placement. We are a boarding school and it would be extremely difficult to find placements students could easily and safely get to within the area and to safeguard the students when they are there.” Another leader, speaking anonymously, told Tes that safeguarding issues for a 45-day placement for 16- and 17-year-olds in work settings are a concern.

Funding issues

Kevin Gilmartin, post-16 specialist at the Association of Schools and College Leaders, says that the end of the £12 million Employer Support Fund (ESF) could be another factor stopping some new employers from offering T-level placements.  This was money available to firms that offer T-level placements to help with costs incurred working with young people – from uniform expenses to lunch tickets, or paying trainers to work with students.  Without this, Gilmartin says, some firms may be deterred from getting involved.

“You can imagine a couple of employers chatting and one says, ‘We got £25,000 for taking a group of kids this year’, so the other firm puts their name forward but then is told there’s no money this year,” he says. “That doesn’t seem a very positive start to get new employers on board.”  The government’s T-level action plan doesn’t clearly set out what will happen next with the ESF, simply stating that it will “now evaluate its impact to help inform our ongoing support offer”.  However, Gilmartin says he does not believe the ESF will return and this is causing disquiet among some schools that have worked with employers who have used the funding. “I know a lot of school members I work with fear the worst.”

Universities unaware

Another concern that exists for some around T levels is the fact that they require a much bigger time commitment than Btecs, as Haydon at Millfield notes: “As three A-level equivalents, they are not as flexible as the Btec programme where you can mix and match, for example, Btec sport with an A level in business.”  The fact that T levels are equivalent to three A levels has been touted as one of their benefits, though – not least because they can lead to university study.  However, Ofsted’s report found that some students have been left “surprised and disappointed that T-level qualifications are not always accepted as a valid entry qualification” by universities.

For example, one student said their college told them that doing T levels would not impact university access, but this was not the case: “I only got one [university] offer, with the reasons for rejection being that I went with the T level and not traditional A levels.” Jan Bolan, headteacher of the London Academy of Excellence Tottenham sixth form, says such situations must be “incredibly frustrating” and is why he would be wary of offering T levels.  “In our context, parents and pupils are looking for routes to an elite university and so I think you would need a real change in perception of T levels [to increase uptake],” he says.

The government defended Ofsted’s criticisms at the time,with Baroness Barran saying it was “confident in the quality of T levels and the employability that they offer students” and that courses “reflect[s] what employers, working with the department and colleges, told us that they needed”.  She also said 136 higher education providers accept T levels, “including the vast majority of Russell Group universities”. Meanwhile, in March 2024, the government published a list of 157 universities known to offer at least one course that will consider T levels for entry.  Furthermore, the Ofsted report did acknowledge that “many students who completed T-level courses have moved on to university to study a degree” – but given the above concerns, this an area that needs greater clarification and reassurance to entice more schools to take up T levels.

For other students, though, a key aspect of T levels is their promise of routes into apprenticeship and employment opportunities, something Ofsted noted was working well for construction and digital T-level students, who often moved on to apprenticeships with their placement employer. A DfE spokesperson said this was proof that T levels were having a positive impact: “T levels are the future of technical education – 90.5 per cent of students passed this year and are progressing to courses at top universities, or jobs or apprenticeships with leading employers.”

The future

Talking about the future brings us to a final topic – what any new government will do with T levels.  If the Conservatives retain power, it would seem logical that T levels will remain as part of the grand Advanced British Standard plan unveiled last year by Rishi Sunak that he said would “put academic and technical education on an equal footing” and had T levels at their heart.  Hall reiterated this in the T-level action plan, published yesterday: “Looking further ahead, the development of the Advanced British Standard will build on our T-level offer, ensuring that future generations have access to high-quality technical and academic education of equal standing,” he said.

Labour, meanwhile, appears to back the continuation of the qualification – with Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, writing in a letter last year that it “has supported the introduction of T levels” and would “continue to promote high-quality vocational pathways” if in power.  For Gilmartin, this backing from both parties is welcome: “T levels are a good product and a welcome addition to the post-16 landscape, so they should be allowed to grow by word of mouth and by evidence of being successful.”

It seems, then, that whatever happens politically, T levels are here to stay. Whoever is in power next, though, clearly has work to do to encourage more schools to join the 153 others moving to offer the qualification.

Dan Worth is senior editor at Tes

Additional reporting by Keith Cooper