Emma Hardy: 'What are T levels the answer to?'

Labour's shadow FE minister questions the government's plans for the new 'gold-standard' technical qualifications

T levels: Labour's Emma Hardy has questioned the purpose of the new qualifications

The government needs to do more to define the purpose of T levels, Labour’s shadow FE minister has told Tes.

Emma Hardy said there were still too many unanswered questions around the new qualifications. These have to urgently be answered by the government if the qualifications are to be a success, she added.

She said: “What are T levels the answer to? What is the problem that a T level is trying to solve? Where is a T level going to take you? 

“The jury is out and I am exploring the idea, but if you are sitting there thinking, 'I am not sure what qualification to take,' you need to know where your T level is going to lead you. Is it going to take you to university? Are universities even going to recognise them? Will it lead to a job? Well no, you are not actually going to be qualified in the way you are with an apprenticeship. What is its purpose? What is it for?”


Need to know: What are T levels and how will they work?

Investigation: Welcome to education’s newest exclusive club: T levels

More: Russell Group universities still undecided on T levels


The new T levels are to be taught in colleges from September this year. Heralded as the “gold-standard” technical equivalent to A levels, they will offer students a mixture of classroom-based learning and on-the-job experience. One T level is equivalent to three A levels and has been assigned Ucas points.

T levels vs apprenticeships

There has been much debate about the qualifications – including who should take them, which qualifications they should replace and the feasibility of the 45-day work placement that students will have to complete as part of the course. 

For those students who are not ready for a T-level course – a Tes investigation found that colleges required a student to have grade 4 or above in GCSE maths and English – a transition course will be taught in some colleges to prepare them for the qualification. 

Ms Hardy said: “[The government] is arguing for this progression year with a T level which then gives someone three years in FE, but they only fund two years in FE for every other course. So for every other course you will get two years of funding and the drop off at 19, but the government seems to be preparing it so that with T levels you can be fully funded for three years. 

“The government has said that these are going to be made to work, they cannot be allowed to fail. If that’s the case, they need to think about what they're offering and how it is going to work.”

Industry placement fears

She also raised concerns over the 45-day industry placements. She asked: “Where are you going to get the industry places from? What about the [social mobility] cold spots where there’s nothing available? Are we just actually offering opportunities to children who are already fortunate because they happen to live in a metropolitan area where they’ve already got a better chance of social mobility and taking away from the children in the coastal communities? If you are living in Bridlington, what T levels have you got?”

And even if a student secures an industry placement, there has to be the pastoral support in those workplaces, Ms Hardy said.

She added: “Sixteen- to 18-year-olds need a lot of pastoral support and you’re going to have them for 45 days in your business. How is that going to work? You are going to have to seriously invest in that pastoral support, supervision and guidance, and the government are going to pay companies to do that. But is that going to be worthwhile for the companies?

“It is not like an apprenticeship where you’ve got them for a year, it is 45 days. One college principal said that they were told to consider residential placements. Are you really going to send 16-year-olds away for 45 days?”

Ms Hardy said that she thought, in practice, the idea of an equivalent technical qualification as an alternative to A levels was a sound idea. But she stressed that many quality apprenticeships are available and offering students a brilliant vocational route.

“Why would you choose a T level over an apprenticeship?” she asked. 

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