With the 2020 start date for the first T-levels fast approaching, Ewart Keep lays out just a few of what he sees as their biggest problems

It is apparent that T-levels are now yet another in a long line of government projects that have been deemed too important to fail, despite the long and failure-strewn history of reform to vocational qualifications. Does anyone (not least at the Department for Education) remember the 14-to-19 diplomas, to which T-levels bear a strong family resemblance?

“This time, it will be different” and “we will make it work” are phrases I hear repeated by officials. But will it be different, and will it work?

There are lots of reasons to worry about T-levels, but I only have space for a couple here. First, there is the issue of what might be termed “critical mass”. This has two aspects.

Will there be enough students, particularly at colleges outside large urban areas, to make some of the pathways viable? I am curious if anyone has run the numbers on this. Colleges report they need an intake of 18 to 20 students to make a course/pathway “wash its face” financially. How many colleges will get 18 to 20 applicants for some of the pathways?

This in turn reflects a second, much broader issue about student numbers.

“This time, it will be different” and “we will make it work” are phrases I hear repeated by officials

T-levels will operate at level three. In many colleges, the bulk of their 16-to-18/19 students are studying at level two or below. Thus in 2016/17 the enrolments at 16 to 18 at different levels were as follows: entry/foundation level – 119,450; level one – 198,830; level two – 427,780; level three – 620,650.

In the new world, large numbers will be on their transition year before T-levels. Official assumptions seem to be that the majority will ultimately move up to level three and onto T-levels. If current patterns of labour market demand and student achievement hold good this is unlikely, however. At many colleges, especially in less prosperous areas, the majority of students will not be on

T-levels, or at level three. Some will be doing applied general courses (if this category continues to exist) and A-levels rather than T-levels.

Moreover, so much 16-to-18/19 FE provision is remedial – it is trying to get students to achieve at level two (and sometimes the maths and English) after their schools failed to equip them during their lower secondary phase. This means that for many students there is the danger that the money will run out at the cut-off point at age 19, before they have completed the combination of the transition year and a T-level.

The other area for concern is one that other contributors to FE Week have already been highlighting: the willingness and ability of employers to deliver what is needed. T-levels are founded on the notion of co-creation and co-delivery, with employers acting not as semi-detached customers, but as full partners in the process. It is an admirable ideal, but making it work will be very hard.

There are at least two problems. First, will the T-level standards devised by small panels of employers be recognised by the wider employer community in the relevant sector/occupation? Evidence from the apprenticeship standards process suggests this may not always be the case.

Second, the work placements are a major ask. Employers are still adjusting to the demands of the levy and the associated apprenticeship reforms. They are also being bombarded with multiple and uncoordinated requests from education (schools, colleges and universities) for more work experience and work placement opportunities.

For example, in higher education, the Wakeham Review of STEM, and the Shadbolt Review of computer science provision have both stressed the need for more and better work experience provision to ensure employability and the relevance of courses to working life. Multiple demands on employers may lead to stress and disengagement. Policy on work placements needs to look at demand from education holistically rather than in discrete blobs like T-levels.

Selling T-levels to employers is going to be a major task.

Professor Ewart Keep is director of SKOPE at Oxford University