T levels are here to stay: we must get behind them

T levels will play a key part in the future of education and students – colleges must recognise their value, writes this deputy principal

Simon Spearman

T level action plan: 5 things we've learned

School leavers have more choice than ever before. For a long time, A levels were considered the main route to university, with vocational qualifications such as BTECs perceived as being less valuable.

Thankfully over the past few years, we have seen this traditional view being challenged – recently, nearly half of all Christ the King Sixth Form students who were accepted into a Russell Group university had studied BTECs. Universities that previously would not have accepted these qualifications are actively promoting them as an entry route.

Now T levels are on the way and they will further disrupt the educational landscape. This is a very exciting time and we’re looking forward to adding these high-quality, technical A-level alternatives to our offering.

But what do T levels mean for students, providers, universities and future employers? Can they run in harmony alongside A levels and BTECs or will they eventually elbow their way to the forefront and push these other qualifications out?

News: Third of T level providers 'not ready for placements'

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Background: T-level placements 'require significant resource'

The government has been clear that it is committed to T levels. Put simply, they are here to stay and that means that no one can afford to ignore them. We’ve spent the past two years preparing so that we are ready for them.

The world is changing and so we must adapt, too. A levels, while still relevant, are no longer the only route for aspirational students and vocational qualifications continue to gain importance and status. The launch of T levels only reinforces that message.

The key now is making sure that they complement existing post-16 options to give young people the opportunity to choose their own path to success.  

Choosing the right path

Christ the King Sixth Forms is a group of three sixth forms in south London and Kent. We know that one size doesn’t fit all when it comes to young people and so each of our centres has a unique ethos and offering.

CTK Emmanuel provides high-quality vocational courses to students with university aspirations. We have the widest range of BTECs, geared towards university progression, in any Catholic London sixth form, with specialised schools of art, business, engineering, health, media, sport and science.

Around 68 per cent of Christ the King Sixth Form students come from a deprived area, yet almost 90 per cent of our level 3 students go on to university, including Russell Group institutions. A report by The Sutton Trust placed us in the top 6 per cent of schools and colleges nationally for university progression.

For some students A levels aren’t the right path. Often this is because they already have a clear idea of what they want to do and would benefit from a more specialised route to university. However, they may still thrive in the nurturing atmosphere of a school sixth form rather than the larger FE colleges better known for vocational courses.

CTK Emmanuel is unique in that we combine the two – vocational study with highly specialised facilities and teaching staff in a Catholic sixth form environment – and there is definitely a gap in education provision for this, which T levels may help to fill as they begin to infiltrate schools and sixth forms.

Preparing for T levels 

We will be offering T levels in business and admin and engineering and manufacturing from 2022 at CTK Emmanuel. We have started to plan what the teaching will look like in terms of the curriculum and how this will be delivered.

We got a head start last academic year by introducing the 45-day work placement for our level 3 students and we’ve been continuing to build relationships with businesses to ensure we can provide high-quality placements long term. We are also making sure that we have strong mentoring schemes in place between students and industry experts.

We’ve been modernising the centre in readiness, too. Each vocational area has its own zoned part of the building and has been refurbished to provide state of the art facilities. This means that when students move on to university or a degree apprenticeship, they will have already used the kit that you would expect in industry.

Each zone has been designed to offer a contemporary way of working and to mirror what the workplace looks like. For example, our business hub has a conference room, lecture room and classrooms that look more like offices.

We want our students to leave us with the confidence, experience and knowledge to succeed in higher education and the world of work.

The benefits of T levels  

Vocational subjects already provide a great opportunity for young people to combine study with real experience of the workplace and T levels, which have the benefit of being designed with industry experts, will strengthen this further.

A key part of the programme is the 45-day work placement. Rather than the traditional one week’s work experience, students will be going into the workplace regularly and will become a member of the team. They will then be able to bring that learning and experience back to the classroom to complement their studies. 

When they finish, the qualification should open several doors to them. We have strong links with universities and they have been keen to engage with us on T levels, so I think that they will welcome them as an entry route.

But if university is not the right path, T levels will offer more choices at 18, too. The real-world experience that students have gained, along with their classroom-based learning, will make them attractive to employers, both when applying for apprenticeships and jobs.

In a post-Covid world, competition for jobs will be even tougher and in some industries students who have already formed links with employers and have practical, hands on experience as well as a high-quality qualification, may stand out from the crowd.

T levels will play a key part in the future of education and students – and providers – who engage with them stand to gain a lot.

Simon Spearman is the deputy principal at CTK Emmanuel

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