Welcome to education’s newest exclusive club: T levels

Most T-level providers will require GCSE maths and English grade 4, leaving tens of thousands unable to enrol

Kate Parker

University of Cambridge reject T levels

Students without a GCSE grade 4 or above in English and maths could find themselves unable to take one of the first T levels, Tes can reveal.

The majority of providers for 2020 will require students to have a grade 4 or above in English and maths to study a T level, according to an exclusive survey. If that were to be rolled out across the sector, it would mean that T levels would be off limits to tens of thousands of students each year. With uncertainty around the future of applied general qualifications at level 3 and below, students without that grade 4 could see their choices limited further in the future. 

According to the Joint Council for Qualifications, in 2019, 172,707 students (29.2 per cent of the cohort) did not get a grade 4 in GCSE maths, and 176,897 (29.8 per cent) did not get one in English. 

Background: The 50 T level providers for 2020

News: Russell Group universities undecided on T levels

Opinion: Why BTECs should not be replaced by T levels

In June this year, the government announced that funding would be withdrawn from 163 level 3 courses. The future of BTECs and other applied generals is also uncertain, with a second consultation on whether further qualifications will have funding removed due in the coming months. 

According to the Association of Colleges (AoC),  just over 30 per cent of students retaking GCSE English or maths are on level 3 programmes.  But as Tes' findings show, the majority of colleges would not allow students to resit a GCSE alongside T level study.  

Tes contacted all 50 of the initial T level providers – who will offer either one of, or a mix of, T levels (a level 3 qualification) in construction, education and childcare or digital.

Of the 36 that responded, 26 providers said that students will need to have a grade 4 and above in English and maths. Four require grade 5 and above, while three providers will accept grade 3s. Two had not finalised their requirements, and one said that there were no requirements set.

'Exclusive rather than inclusive'

Tom Richmond, founder and director of the EDSK think tank and former government adviser, said it was worrying that so many students could be pushed away from T levels, at a time when the future of other level 3 qualifications remained uncertain. 

Mr Richmond said: “As soon as the government decided that T levels would be an exclusive rather than inclusive qualification, this outcome was almost inevitable. 

“Preventing students who did not pass their GCSEs in English and maths from starting a T level will  heighten the widespread concerns about the number of learners who will start a T-level qualification next year, which could ultimately harm the reputation of this new qualification."

Gordon Marsden, shadow skills minister,  said the way GCSE English and maths currently operated would put "the sort of young people that the government wants to take T levels" off. 

He told Tes that, if functional maths and English were to be offered – and accepted by colleges as entry requirements for T levels – more vocationally suited learners would be able to take the qualifications. 

“It is not dumbing down [GCSEs], it is just instead of having abstract examples. There’s ways of presenting the pure maths or the pure English side of things that will be closer to the everyday lives and work that they are going to inhabit, instead of simply being academic exercises,” he said.

“The government is looking down the wrong end of the telescope. They should be looking seriously at GCSE functional skills in maths and English…particularly if you are looking at people coming from technical or vocational background [to a T level], and not from an academic one." 

'A level 3 and a half'

The news comes months after the government confirmed that it would financially support students who needed to resit a GCSE. According to official Department for Education documents, T-level students will also have the option of taking a level 2 functional skills qualification instead. 

It was also announced that gaining a GCSE grade 4 and a level 2 functional skills qualification would be an exit – not entry – requirement of the T level. 

But Mark Anderson, vice-principal at New College Durham, said it was unlikely that it would be possible for students to add GCSE maths and English into the T level. 

T levels will consist of 1,800 hours over two years – 50 per more than the average 16-19 study programme. Adding 70, or even 140, extra hours on top of that would be a massive ask for those students, he said.

Mr Anderson explained that T levels were a level 3 qualification, but "if there was a level 3 and half, then that’s what the T level is at”.

He said he was concerned about what would happen to students who could currently take a level 3 qualification and have the option to retake GCSEs if BTECs and applied generals ceased to exist.

“We’ve analysed the first-year engineering students who started in September – out of those 70 to 75, we would put 10 to 12 on a T level. 

“There needs to be an alternative qualification at level 3 or we would be putting 70 students on a qualification where achievement rates would be very low,” he said. 

Mark Compton, principal of Access Creative, said that the academic rigour of the T levels required learners to be able to cope with level 3 study.

“We don’t want to set students up to fail, and we don’t want anyone underachieving. [To study a T level], students do need a grade 4 at English and maths, unless there was reasonable mitigation supporting an application with grade 3s. 

“It is a big substantial qualification, it would be an achievement to hold it, it will be of value. Learners will need to be able to cope with the rigour of level 3 study. If someone presented with a grade 2 at English or maths, that learner would be better served by taking a level 2 course like the T level transition programme.”

The Association of Colleges’ senior policy manager Catherine Sezen said that nearly half of students on level 3 technical vocational programmes currently started at level 2 in order to prepare for a higher level. 

Of the 50 providers, 37 will pilot a level 2 T-level transition programme in 2020. According to the government, that course will be targeted at students who are not ready to start a T level aged 16, but could be expected to complete one by 19. 

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We have not set entry requirements for T levels at national level and expect providers to do this based on the course content, the institution’s strategic approach and their assessment of the individual.

“Entry requirements for T levels vary between providers and we think it is important for them to be able to use their own judgement when setting requirements, in line with other national qualifications like A levels.”

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Kate Parker

Kate Parker is a FE reporter.

Find me on Twitter @KateeParker

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