Years after the qualifications were first announced and only months after the first T-level subjects were rolled out, the column inches are stacking up.
First introduced in Philip Hammond’s Budget statement in 2017, the qualifications have been lauded as the new "gold standard" of technical education.
Last September the first three routes – digital, construction, and education and childcare – were rolled out in providers across England and by 2023, there will be 24 on offer in total. The qualification is equivalent to three A levels, and combines classroom learning with an on-the-job industry placement of at least 315 hours, or 45 days.
From delays on specifications and the impact of Covid on teaching and learning, to providers dropping out and employers’ reluctance to offer work placements, the new qualifications have faced challenges.
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But what has the experience been like for those on the front line of delivery, the lecturers and leaders who are teaching T levels this year?
Mark Smith is teaching the digital T-level pathway at City College Norwich. He admits that it’s been a challenge and says the course curriculum, although classed as a level 3, is more like a “level 3 and a half”. One of his colleagues at CCN, Laura Flood, agrees. She, too, is delivering the digital pathway.
“When we took students on, we knew it was going to be a four-day-a-week course, and the expectation was that it isn't just an A-level approach, it’s like an A level and a half. It’s not quite level 4 but it's definitely more than a level 3. We did expect it to be quite a tough year for the first year of running it,” she says.
And while the qualification was always expected to be a step up from the equivalent level 3 Btecs in terms of content, no one could have predicted the pandemic and the huge impact it would have on this particular cohort of students. Liv Bradley, construction T-level lead at CCN, says the cancellation of GCSE exams in summer 2020 has had ramifications.
“The main challenge with students not sitting their GCSEs is they haven't gone through the experience of exams and getting their results, and actually their core skills are not necessarily as strong as we would have expected,” she says.
“The specification is so different to Btecs. There’s a lot more expected from the students. And the assessment methods have changed: we’ve gone from assignments and coursework to exam preparation. Focusing on preparing them for exams at the end of year one is definitely something we're trying to work on and get them ready for.”
T levels and teacher CPD
The qualifications don’t just expect more from the students, but from their teachers, too. In 2018, the Department for Education announced that the Education and Training Foundation was developing a T-level Professional Development scheme to develop teachers’ skills and knowledge.
Indeed, Bradley says one of the major challenges over the past 18 months has been staff upskilling and recruitment.
"Nationally, upskilling and CPD has been a big part of the preparation for the T-level delivery. I have attended several CPD sessions on surveying and the use of drones, and found these highly valuable," she says. "The construction industry is developing with advances in technology, and it's important we all keep up-to-date to ensure our delivery meets the needs of the industry."
At Barnsley College, digital lead Jessica Lee-Henderson went one step further and hired four new specialists to teach different aspects of the course.
“One of the things that we quickly established was that we had a skills gap in our provision, so we took a decision to recruit four new really highly specialist staff lecturers, who look at specific things such as: data analysts, cyber security and software development, so we have the skills set to deliver it.”
Lee-Henderson says the team have utilised training from external organisations like the ETF, have had best-practice sessions with other colleges also delivering the courses, and have had a teaching and learning coach focus on exam-based courses. But it is a different way of teaching, she says.
“All the staff have been involved in curriculum development before, so it wasn't too much of a transition, but, yes, it is certainly a different structure, and a different way to teach than perhaps we were used to,” she says.
Teaching T levels remotely
Not only is the course structure and delivery different to Btecs, but teaching and learning in 2020-21 also looked very different. Teaching the T levels remotely has been tough, says Smith.
“It’s been hard to get the students engaged in theory when they're working at home. Our T-level students are bright, enthusiastic and really well motivated which isn’t surprising because we pitched our entry requirements quite high, but this does mean they're almost going away and doing their own little things,” he says.
“But our attendance has been around 98 per cent throughout, which is amazing. They were all keen to get back in as soon as possible and when we started doing the phased return after the last lockdown finished, they wanted to be the first ones in all week, which is very different to some of our other classes.”
However, at Barnsley College, students have asked for a hybrid delivery model, with a dedicated portion of the course delivered from home.
“I was talking to one of our students, and he said he’s found it useful to have some of his time at home, because he has made really good progress working there without distractions. But on the flip side of that, for some lessons that he's done, project management and working in teams, that would have been better to have in a classroom,” says Lee-Henderson. “It’s really nice to see learners self-identifying where, for the second year, we could adapt and keep some element of remote learning.”
Caroline Wareing is curriculum manager for further education, society, health and childhood at Blackpool and the Fylde College, and has been leading on the delivery of the education and childcare T level. She says the success of a blended learning approach depends on individual students – but, overall, full on-site delivery gives students the opportunity to train with industry-level equipment.
“Our students have absolutely relished being on site and that's simply because we have industry-standard equipment here. They get to develop those skills and competencies, and the confidence required to perform in industry and to engage with our employers to their best potential,” she says.
“Because of the requirement for the T level to develop really high-level technical competencies, being on site for roles is absolutely essential and something that will definitely continue moving forwards.”
The problem with placements
And while adaptations have had to be made in some parts of delivery, there’s one element of the T level the government has insisted it will not budge on: the work placement. The placements are the key pillar of the qualification, with at least 45 days expected to be spent in the workplace. But the pandemic has had ramifications on this element, too: not only do some employers not have the capacity within their business at the moment, but some have also moved to working from home.
Apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan has stressed that while the placements can be pushed forward into the second year of the course, they must happen in person.
However, Lee-Henderson is a firm advocate for a different approach – and says education needs to reflect the way industry works.
“A hybrid situation would be absolutely fine because it mirrors exactly what industry is like. Digital, for a long time, hasn’t been a sector that relies on an office,” she says. “We work really closely with a games company, Hutch. They have offices and staff who work for them all over the world. We perhaps need to bring education in line and follow what some industries are doing. The placement at the minute is quite structured around being in the building."
But Smith and Flood say their students are desperate to get into the workplace – and, actually, their first introduction should be a physical one.
“They need to see how people work in a working environment, because even though they're young adults, they're still a little bit in the school zone. Some of them are just moving out of it now. It’s not until the second year, they become more adult, so maybe then they could have a portion virtually, but the first experience really needs to be physical,” says Smith.
T levels: the challenges going forward
It’s been a tough introduction to the new qualifications – and, going forward, delivery will continue to be a challenge, say the teachers. At CCN, Smith and Flood will teach two new T-level routes from September 2021, and Flood is apprehensive.
“We're adding another 1,200 guided learning hours so there’s a lot of extra stuff to contend with. We are hoping to bring someone else on board to help us with the teaching of those,” says Flood. “Because the core components are similar but not the same, it means if we do have low numbers on a certain specialism, in the new NCFE ones we would be able to combine the core components, but we wouldn't be able to add the Pearson one, too, because they’re too different. It’s logistics: how we timetable for all of that, and how we fit it all in.”
For Lee-Henderson, it’s the placements that will continue to be the toughest aspect of delivery. "The T levels are just so new. For childcare, it’s not too dissimilar to what they've been doing for a long time, but I think for other sectors, it's a different approach to have them for a longer extended period of time," she says.
And Wareing is concerned about T levels' place in the post-16 technical landscape. She says the government’s review into level 3 qualifications will be critical for the qualifications, and is concerned about the recognition of T levels, at a time when the post-16 landscape is already really confusing for learners.
“When I speak to parents of 15- or 16-year-olds at school, they are not entirely sure what T levels are and, in some ways, nor are the schools. At times, there is still the perception there are Btecs, A levels and apprenticeships, and nothing in between.
“The level 3 landscape, in terms of qualifications, is very crowded and requires a streamlined approach, and I welcome the DfE consultation of post-16 qualifications that’s taking place. In terms of a challenge, we want T levels to be a success because we know that students who embark on and complete a T level will be secure in those higher-level technical and professional roles in the future.
“I know it's early days and I'm probably impatient in my desire to raise nationally the profile of T levels. I hope when the consultation on level 3 qualifications is completed and actions taken, the landscape is more streamlined than it is now – that will enable more comprehensive careers guidance to take place and for students to know they are taking the right next steps to their dream job.”