T levels should be more flexible, says NFER

Policymakers should review the large number of guided learning hours in T levels, according to new NFER report

T level industry placements should be more flexible, warns NFER

Policymakers should make T-level placements more flexible, a new report warns. 

T Levels Research: How Are Providers Preparing for Delivery?, published by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) this morning, also suggests that the large number of guided learning hours required for the new qualification, due to be launched from next year, should be reviewed.

T levels are set to be introduced across 50 providers from September 2020, and will aim to become the "gold standard" of technical education. The qualifications will require students to undertake an industry placement of a minimum 315 hours, as well as completing 600 hours of guided learning. 


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

More: Russell Group universities still undecided on T levels

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


The report says: “More flexibility in what constitutes an industry placement is still required to take account of the structures and characteristics of different sectors and the range of ways that employers are able to engage. This could include counting work-related learning and projects led by employers in the 315 hours requirement."

It adds that more guidance on how the quality of industry placements should be monitored and who would be best placed to perform this role would be welcomed – and stresses that the size of the T level programme will make it difficult for students to participate in extracurricular activities, such as sport. This could, in turn, affect wellbeing.

The report goes on to say: “The number of learning hours will make T levels difficult to access for some young people, particularly those who are already disadvantaged.”

However, it does not echo concerns that it would be a challenge for students to take a GCSE resit alongside such a substantial learning programme – something that could be required for students who have not previously achieved a grade 4 or above in maths and English.

A Tes investigation in October revealed that more than half of the new T-level providers will require students to have a grade 4 or above in GCSE maths and/or English before they start the course, with college leaders saying that the sheer size of the qualification would be too demanding for students to undertake alongside a GCSE maths or English resit. 

The NFER report raises concerns over access to university for students taking T levels. While it says that the Ucas tariff points allocated to T levels are welcome, it points out that, as reported by Tes in September,  Russell Group institutions are yet to decide whether or not they will accept T levels. According to the NFER, the universities' decisions could tarnish T levels in the minds of parents and carers. 

Raising awareness of T levels 

It says: “Promoting the value of T levels to employers and harnessing their involvement in providing high-standard placements will also be pivotal to the success of these new technical education programmes. This promotion needs to be sustained across the full roll-out and beyond, and not just focus on the initial phase of qualifications.”

Suzanne Straw, education to employment lead at the NFER, said there was no doubt that the positivity and enthusiasm of providers and key sector representatives will drive forward the introduction of the first three T levels next year.

“A significant challenge is demonstrating that these new technical education programmes will lead to positive progression into employment, apprenticeships or higher education. As well as focusing on raising awareness of the value of T levels with students, parents/carers and higher education providers, there needs to be sustained promotion across the full roll-out and beyond," she said.

“While providers are optimistic in regards to the introduction of T levels and the opportunities they will bring, they are facing a range of challenges in introducing large-scale changes so quickly. For example, the late availability of the full T-level specifications in March 2020 and the tight timescale for fully developing the qualifications is still a cause for concern. As the country approaches a general election, it is imperative that sufficient ongoing investment and support is given to these new technical qualifications to ensure their success,” she said.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said: “If the government wants T levels to succeed, it needs to flex up the programme to encourage more independent training providers with their close links to employers to get involved and generate the huge number of industry placements required. But why is the government looking at possible flexibilities in the on-the-job elements in T levels when it is refusing to consider them for apprenticeships – it’s a glaring inconsistency.

“AELP has serious concerns about the ability of a young person to progress from a T level and this doesn’t mean reaching for inappropriate fixes.  T levels will only be fit for purpose if they enable smooth progression.”

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