T Levels are a new qualification offered as an equal alternative to completing three A Levels. The two-year courses have been developed in collaboration with businesses and employers so that the programme meets industry needs and effectively prepares students for the world of work. Not only will they receive classroom learning, they will also gain on-the-job experience through an industry placement of at least 315 hours.
The courses are expected to be rolled out to colleges in September this year covering 25 subject areas, including: animal care and management, hair, beauty and aesthetics, as well as legal, and onsite construction. They present great opportunities for those who wish for a clear trajectory into their careers, but questions about the readiness of T Levels are circulating amongst colleges and education providers.
The main benefit to students is the compulsory work placement taken alongside their studies as it presents a chance to gain first-hand experience in their chosen career, which they may not otherwise have access to. Students will not only have the learning experience A Levels offer but will also be able to implement what they study in a real work environment. Work experience is all the more important in pursuing a career and to introduce this at an early age is a unique opportunity, especially because the industry placements are significantly longer than traditional work experience.
However, there are a few challenges which need to be ironed out before September. This includes the availability of work for students in rural and coastal areas of the country where placements are limited. This can make it difficult to accommodate everyone who wishes to undertake a T Level course, especially if businesses in the area are small or transport links are inadequate. Consequently, the issue creates an unfair advantage for students who live in populated cities or areas, meaning that the government needs to ensure that everyone who undertakes the T Level course is provided with a work placement matched with their desired subject. They are yet to announce how they are going to achieve this, and with the new course set to be introduced this year, it is important that these concerns are resolved as soon as possible.
Nonetheless, the prospect of a work placement presents benefits for employers as well as students as it gives them the chance to ensure that young people are developing the skills, behaviours and knowledge that their industry needs. The work placement also brings new ideas to the table; provides extra resources for businesses; develops employees’ management skills, especially with younger people; and aids recruitment for entry-level jobs.
This is greatly valuable for businesses and students alike, but it ignores a crucial concern: there is no guarantee that employers will use T Levels for additional employment in the first place, despite its benefits. Industry placements are a major ask and employers are still becoming accustomed to the requirements of the levy and the associated apprenticeship reforms. Many are also being bombarded with uncoordinated requests from schools, colleges and universities to provide work experience opportunities for their students. Therefore, there is no guarantee that businesses, no matter how limited they are in the area, will agree to offer extra work to T Level students. Ensuring that everyone who enrols onto a T Level course receives the renowned work placement is a much bigger challenge than it initially seems, and the government needs to set out how they can ensure that it is overcome.
Young people may also refrain from taking T Levels if its reputation is not seen as equal to A Levels. It is important that they are considered to be as respectable as each other, but two different routes: academic and vocational. This would allow students who are not suited to the academic route to still receive the same level of opportunity in the future. The work placement is a great reflection of this as it is not a compulsory part of A Levels and therefore gives students a different set of skills. When T Levels were announced, the government used terminology such as the ‘high quality work placement’ and students ‘successfully completing a work placement1. Such language helps to build the desired reputation of T Levels and suggests that they will be of high standard.
Nevertheless, this creates a considerable amount of ambiguity as there needs to be clarification on what constitutes a ‘high quality’ and ‘successful’ work placement. This would allow colleges and businesses to meet a clear standard for students and allow them to become adequately prepared for the working world after their course. Doing so would make the new qualification all the more desirable to potential students as it sets out exactly what they will receive from their enrolment.
This also needs to be reflected in what opportunities are offered to students once they have completed their course. Clearly, T Levels provide a strong trajectory of development for future careers and the new qualification can equip students with valuable connections and skills to go into employment. However, questions have arisen surrounding those who may not wish to go directly into employment and would rather further their studies through higher education.
Universities UK, ‘the voice of universities’, says that they are ‘generally supportive of the government’s reforms to technical education’2. In addition, some of the providers that FE Week spoke to have welcomed the allocation of UCAS points for T Levels. This would allow assessment results to be used in support of future applications for higher education courses, if desired3. However, Universities UK still holds some reservations about whether students will be given ‘sufficient information, advice and guidance to allow them to make well-informed education choices’4.
Additionally, universities have been given the freedom to decide whether they would like to accept the qualifications at all. Russell Group universities have already expressed reservations and are questioning the types of courses T Level students can progress onto5. This could impact the decisions other universities make about T Levels, meaning a university degree may not be an easy option for students who chose to undertake them. Consequently, this could create an inferior reputation for the new qualification, putting its popularity at risk.
T Levels are set to be a widely respected qualification of which colleges and education providers are showing great enthusiasm for. The industry placement is an especially unique selling point which can prove advantageous for both the students and employers. But despite the qualifications’ immense potential, there are still a few problems which need to be ironed out by the government. It needs to be made clear what the qualification will provide all students with, not just those with an abundance of businesses to choose from. Universities also need to start stating whether they would consider T Levels as an entry requirement and if so, for which courses, to allow students to make well-informed decisions before September.
Once this has happened, T Levels will present a great opportunity for many students across the country and reflect a clear effort to adapt to the needs of those within younger generations who do not feel that A Levels are the correct route for them.
1 T Levels Industry Placements: Update on delivery models and support, May 2019
2 Universities UK T Levels Consultation Response, 2018
3 FE Week: T Levels: positive preparations continue but challenged remain, December 2019
4 Universities UK T Levels Consultation Response, 2018
5 iNews: Russell Group universities cast doubt on whether they will accept T-Levels, September