As the first ever T Level graduates collect their results on level 3 results day, senior reporter Jason Noble went along to City College Norwich to find out how students fared in the inaugural – and pandemic-impacted – years…
When the T Level qualifications were first set up two years ago, one of the biggest selling points was the 45-day industry placement to help students get a foot in the door of their future industries.
And as buoyant students wander through the reception doors at City College Norwich to collect their results, the impact that work has had on their next steps becomes abundantly clear. Some of the graduates for the design, surveying and planning for constriction T Level – dressed in employer-branded polo shirts – can’t even hang around because they are heading straight off to work with the employers they did their placement with.
“The bit of paper and grade is important, but it is only a passport to the next stage of your life,” said new principal Jerry White, who served as deputy since 2013 before taking on the top job over the summer.
“When I see young people going off into brilliant degree apprenticeships, or great work, the doors have been opened by their placement as part of their T Level, or going off to universities with them being prepared to embrace T Levels, that is brilliant.”
Libby Smith, who passed her education and childcare T Level and is eyeing a career in teaching, added: “The experience has helped me a lot because I have not really done much around the school environment, but getting that practise in was really helpful because I have now got a part time job at Busy Bees [a local nursery] and that’s really boosted my confidence a lot working with children.”
Nationally, around 1,300 students signed up for the first three T Level courses two years ago – the aforementioned education and childcare and construction qualifications, as well as digital production, design and development – with just over 1,000 completing courses.
City College was among a handful to go for all three courses from the start. It had 70 students across the three qualifications, with nearly three quarters (73 per cent) achieving a merit or higher and 34 per cent getting a distinction.
Its overall pass rates were 94 per cent for construction, 96 per cent for education and childcare and 100 per cent for digital.
Interestingly, the digital course was the one with the lowest pass rate nationally at 89.7 per cent, meaning Norwich students performed above average.
White said the college was keen to be a trailblazer for the new qualifications, and even now the leaders for the new T Levels which launched last year or will do this September are learning from the experiences of the first cohort.
“We supported the vision for T Levels which was around challenging the dominance to A-levels, and trying to bring a parity of esteem to technical and vocational education,” White said.
“The T Level does offer us the ability to have a conversation with a parent, a school, a young person , that says you have got a real choice and they are both really well recognised.
“We thought that by being at the forefront of that we would firstly be able to help shape how they developed, and perhaps add something to that, and secondly we felt that for a large general further education college like this, the implications of T Levels for when they are all rolled out it’s worth getting in early and understanding how to do them well.”
Given the natural feet-finding with new courses coupled with the disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic, it hasn’t been without issues.
Some more clarity between the colleges and awarding bodies on assessments is one area for development, White says, after some confusion with the final digital exams.
Some digital T Level students also had to quickly switch to online industry placements as offices closed down during the pandemic.
Elsewhere, second year construction students faced teaching disruption in the first term when two of the course delivery staff left, resulting in some students saying they had more of an onus on their own learning and a greater reliance on the industry placements during that time.
Going forward, more employers will need to be recruited to fulfil the placements, but staffing may also be a barrier under the current funding arrangements where more competitive salaries can be offered in their industries of expertise or higher education.
“It could quickly become the limiting factor on what T Level colleges can offer,” White said. “We may find we can’t meet the demand for T Levels from students because we haven’t got and cannot retain the highly qualified industry experts to deliver the courses.”
But for now, despite the challenges – which like the A-levels did result in a level of generosity in grades at the request of the Department for Education for this year – the outcomes for students have been largely positive.
Their future destinations appear to be a wide mix of university courses, apprenticeships, further study or employment, depending on career preferences and modes of study.
“The course as a whole was a pretty decent course considering you get an industry placement, which is now leading to the fact that I get a contract on Monday. It opened a lot of doors within one industry, I am ready for a career in construction and the T Level has allowed me to move forward,” said Brad Reese a construction graduate.
Fellow course-mate Josh Demark added: “I think it is the way forward. I have got a route into industry that doesn’t involve university, which I am quite glad about.”