Fresh scrutiny has been levelled at the T Level rollout after the education secretary was forced to delay four of the new flagship courses just six months before they were due to launch.
Gillian Keegan announced on Thursday that three T Levels to be offered by awarding body NCFE from September 2023 – in hair, beauty and aesthetics; craft and design; and media broadcast and production – have been pushed back by a year because of quality concerns.
Another T Level, which is being developed by Highfield in catering, has been delayed to 2025 at the earliest.
The decision was taken jointly between the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). Keegan said that T Levels will be approved only when “we are sure they are good enough”.
“As such, there is more work for awarding organisations to do before IfATE and Ofqual can be clear that these T Levels are capable of meeting the high quality bar required by both organisations to enable them to be taken into delivery, and that will not be possible in time for launch this September,” she said.
The remaining two T Levels due for rollout this September – Pearson’s T Level in legal services and the City and Guilds-developed course in agriculture, land management and production – will launch as planned.
It marks the latest controversy for the T Level brand following problems with last summer’s first-year health and science exams, which were found to be unfit for purpose and saw 1,100 students regraded.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said awarding organisations (AOs) welcomed the delay but insisted that quality alone was not the issue.
“In my view, it is disingenuous of the education secretary to tell parliament that the decision to delay is driven solely by ‘quality concerns’ related to providers and AOs who are, after all, the developers and not the accountable bodies for the success of these qualifications,” he said.
Senior civil servants had concerns about delivery timescales and the taxpayer value for money as far back as 2018, Bewick said.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, said it was right the DfE ensured T Levels were of a high quality, but warned that colleges will be “massively disrupted” by the development. “Alternative arrangements will now need to be made urgently,” he said.
Jerry White, City College Norwich principal, told FE Week there “should have been a go/no go decision in September”.
“We have got applicants who we have been working with for months, they’ve applied and in many cases they have been interviewed and offered a place. We now have got to go back to them and discuss what an alternative might be. In some cases there isn’t an obvious alternative because some of those qualifications are not there anymore,” he said.
Rachel Curry, principal and deputy chief executive of The Manchester College, said the timing – during the recruitment period – left her “frustrated” and created “uncertainty”.
Vicki Illingworth, executive principal at Chichester College Group, said the DfE had “clearly listened to feedback from providers following the challenges around the health T Level last year,” but warned there was a “potential reputational impact that colleges could face by not delivering courses that were promised”.
The DfE’s permanent secretary Susan Acland-Hood apologised to students and colleges for the delay.
“I talk to T Level students quite often about the fact that they are pathfinding with us and helping us to develop qualifications. But I don’t think we should ask them to take an unreasonable risk on qualifications where there is a challenge with quality,” she told a Public Accounts Committee meeting on Thursday.
NCFE said it was “confident in the quality of the technical development to date” for its delayed T Levels but agreed that slowing the rollout would ensure that “T Levels support every student to reach their potential”.
A spokesperson from Highfield said it supported Keegan’s decision.
“It’s essential that we take the necessary time and effort to ensure that everything is developed to the highest quality standards that should be expected by both providers and students. It is also imperative that as part of the development process, we give providers sufficient time to prepare for programme delivery,” the spokesperson added.
The DfE confirmed that cash from the T Levels specialist equipment allocation for wave four, due to be paid by the end of this month, will still be paid to providers for courses that have now been delayed to 2024, as long as they commit to delivering those courses and student numbers remain the same. That cash can be spent by the end of December 2024.
For those due to receive money for the catering T Level, the DfE said it will be making contact to reclaim the funding.
However, it still leaves questions over the T Level capital bids, which can take months of work to prepare.
City College Norwich said it had put in a bid to refurbish its kitchens ahead of the catering T Level, which had already included expense on consultants and architect’s drawings, but now expects the department to park this process.