A third of health and science T Level students switched to alternative courses or dropped out of college entirely after their first year following this summer’s exams fiasco.
An FE Week investigation has unearthed the extent of the fallout from the “diabolical” assessments, which were found to have been unfit for purpose by Ofqual following protest from more than 1,110 students.
Devastated students have spoken of how the debacle left them “crushed” and with no other choice but to turn their back on the flagship new qualification.
They faced tough calls on whether to continue with the course, re-take their employer-set project in the hope of a better grade, or switch to alternative courses like A-levels or BTECs. Some (see panel) said they were no longer pursuing their dream job, or now facing “years longer” to reach their goal.
Around 1,600 students started the health and science T Level in 2021, with 1,115 receiving a grade after the first year.
A series of Freedom of Information requests were sent by this publication to all colleges and sixth forms that delivered the course, with data received at the time of publication for just under 1,000 students.
Of those, a third switched to alternative courses or dropped out of college entirely. More than 42 per cent were resitting their employer-set projects.
By comparison, the drop out rate for BTEC health and social care diploma is less than 10 per cent, while the drop-out rate for BTEC diploma in applied science is less than 11 per cent, according to latest government data.
FE Week’s figures also shows that numbers of first year starters for the 2022/23 academic year are down more than 26 per cent on the first year of the course in 2021/22.
The data comes after the exams regulator Ofqual investigated the core exams following complaints by students in the summer who received lower grades than expected, which found that papers were not fit for purpose. The regulator found “question errors, inadequate mark schemes and questions covering areas not explicitly in the specification,” which meant the assessments “do not secure a sufficiently valid or reliable measure of student performance”.
It ruled that the 1,115 first year students should be graded entirely on their employer-set project if that was better than their overall grade, with awarding body NCFE tasked with fixing the problems in time for this year’s exams.
At least 11 colleges are not running the course this year while problems are ironed out, the data shows, with at least four of those having switched all of their first years from last year onto different courses this year too.
A spokesperson from Furness College, one of those which opted not to take first years for 2022/23, said: “We took a strategic decision based on information available at the time to pause our T Level health programme until September 2023.
“Our CEIAG [careers education, information advice and guidance] to students is the cornerstone of enrolment and must always be in the best interests of students in terms of their progression and success.”
A spokesperson from Middlesbrough College, another to pause intake for 2022, said at the time of needing to decide about this year’s courses it “did not have sufficient assurance that the problems that arose this summer around examinations would not be repeated”.
They added that the T Level brand “had suffered to the extent that our student numbers in this area were significantly below our expectations and so we felt that running classes would not have represented a prudent allocation of resources”.
The college said it was committed to supporting the qualification in future, once issues had been supported and dealt with.
Shipley College was among those to put new students on alternative level 3 qualifications instead of the T Level this year, adding that “delivery will recommence in ‘23/24 once we are confident the issues have been resolved”.
Other colleges, while continuing to run the course, have seen a big drop in numbers this year. Leeds City College had 50 first years in 2021/22, but just 16 this time around.
Gemma Simmons-Blench, deputy chief executive for curriculum with Luminate Group which runs the college, said it was a “much bigger drop than we could have potentially hoped for, it’s been really disappointing” but was directly in correlation with the problems in the exams because “our recruitment in other T Level areas is really strong”.
She added: “It’s really difficult because we have got students when they started this programme they knew they were on a flagship programme, absolutely flying-high, just feeling really disillusioned.”
NCFE has signed an enforceable undertaking with Ofqual to deliver improvements in time for the next set of exams, which includes providing statements of assurances for its T Levels confirming action plan measures have been delivered and problems raised in the first-year exams do not remain.
The awarding body said it had reviewed existing processes and rolled out a package of resources to support teaching staff.
But one tutor at a college that has switched all its students on to level 3 equivalents said colleagues still delivering the qualifications at some other establishments were “completely bewildered” on whether they needed to teach their courses differently.
The tutor, who did not wish to be named, said “lecturers are becoming despondent due to the slow nature of change,” and added: “Change must happen soon to bring some confidence back to the brand, but also to the awarding bodies and organisations that have placed the future of healthcare education in massive jeopardy.”
Simmons-Blench added that there remained a “massive fear” of mistakes being repeated this year.
Bucking the trend
Despite the problems, some colleges are bucking the trend and recruiting more students for this year.
MidKent College has 55 first year enrolments this year compared to 28 last year, while Newham College of Further Education has upped its intake from eight to 28.
City College Norwich had five students last year, on the science pathway only, but this year has 45 students – 12 on science and 33 on health.
College principal Jerry White said it opted to run both the health and science T Level and continue the level 3 health and social care BTEC it was already running.
Students aiming for social care careers were directed toward the BTEC this year, while those wanting health careers were advised the T Level suited their needs more.
“We can see distinct pathways, we think we can see a need that isn’t met by the T Level suite as it currently exists and therefore, we want to continue the health and social care BTEC in that regard,” he said.
The college confirmed the issues with the initial exams had not impacted on retention of its first years for this year, with White adding he had confidence last year’s errors would not be repeated.
Simmons-Blench said “fundamentally they are great qualifications,” which “should offer those students really excellent transition and progression routes”.
A spokesperson from the Department for Education said: “In response to the errors in exam papers, grades were re-issued based on students’ project assessments taken as part of their course, with no student being disadvantaged though this process, and IfATE is now reviewing the content of the courses.
“Though we recognise that some students will have switched to other courses, we are working hard to make sure these issues do not happen again.”
‘I felt completely let down’
Students who opted to switch courses have spoken to FE Week of the difficulties they have faced – and continuing impacts the summer issues have had on them.
Meg Longstaff was a student at Hopwood Hall College, with plans to progress onto a mental health nursing course at university after the two-year T Level.
She opted to switch to A-levels for this year after feeling “completely let down” by the exam problems. She continues to work towards her plans to go to university, but is now a year behind her original plans.
“After results day when we came to find the correlation of the average grades being Es and Us across the country, I realised I couldn’t get into university no matter how well I did in the second year due to how the overall grading worked,” the 17-year-old said.
“I now feel much more confident about my future [having switched] but still wish that NCFE would have owned up to the problem at the very start, in order to try and prevent people from having to drop out or swap courses.”
Another student, who did not wish to be named, studied the first year at Fareham College, but stopped after the exams to instead work as a pharmacy dispenser full time. Their original plan had been to progress to university and qualify as a paramedic, and had been encouraged to do the T Level to get there.
Now, their plan has switched to applying for an emergency care assistant role in the next couple of years which would lead to an access course and degree apprenticeship with an ambulance trust to become a paramedic.
“Due to the T Level my plans have been put on hold for a few years,” they said. “I still feel the same about my career aspirations and want to do the same thing, but I am disappointed at how it’s going to take me years longer.”
What is happening with the review?
The DfE has confirmed that the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) is continuing to review the health and science T Level content, and said that students that started in 2021 or 2022 are studying the current version of the content.
That review is to confirm the breadth and depth of the outline content and qualification specification, according to IfATE, with findings to be published in early 2023 and any resulting changes to be signposted accordingly.