DfE launch T Level reviews amid ‘worrying’ drop-out rates

New figures confirm a third of 2021 T Level entrants dropped the course

New figures confirm a third of 2021 T Level entrants dropped the course

25 Apr 2024, 17:52

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Just 16,000 young people started a T Level in the fourth year of their rollout, according to new government data that also confirms a “worrying” dropout rate for the flagship qualification.

Officials are now undertaking a “route-by-route” review of T Level content and assessment in a bid to boost recruitment and retention and to ensure the courses are “manageable at scale”.

But campaigners lobbying to stop cuts to competitor courses such as BTECs have said “very low” student interest in T Level leaves the government’s level-3 qualification reforms “dead in the water”.

A new T Level action plan was published on Thursday and revealed starts figures for the 2023/24 academic year.

Student numbers for the qualifications, designed as the new technical equivalent to A Levels, grew by 58 per cent from 10,200 in September 2022 to 16,085 in September 2023.

Two extra T Levels were on offer in 2023, bringing the total to 18, offered across 254 providers, up from 164. Since their introduction in 2020 more than 30,000 students have started a T Level.

Close to £1.8 billion has been spent on the T Level programme to date, yet they have reached less than 3 per cent of the 16-to-19 population.

T Level under-recruitment has been widely reported. Earlier this year, FE Week revealed how lower-than-expected enrolments had cost NCFE, a major T Level awarding organisation, £2.5 million so far. Several colleges told FE Week they had canned some T Level courses last year due to low take-up.

Government officials are now taking steps to make T Levels “more commercially attractive” to awarding organisations by introducing higher entry fees for providers if numbers are low.  

T Level courses in agriculture, land management and production were introduced in September 2023, alongside legal services. A total of 270 students enrolled for agriculture, land management and production, which is the first T Level to be available under the agriculture and animal care route. 

The DfE publishes T Level entry data by route, rather than specific T Levels, so it’s not possible to determine how many started on the new legal services course. Just less than 550 students started a T Level in the legal and finance route, which includes legal services and the finance and accounting T Levels launched in 2022.

Despite the low recruitment, the government is ploughing ahead with controversial plans to remove funding for competing level-3 applied general qualifications from August.

James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said “very low” take-up of T Levels leaves “plans to scrap applied general qualifications like BTECs dead in the water”.

According to Kewin, who leads the Protect Student Choice campaign, around 280,000 students are studying applied general qualifications compared to around 26,000 studying a T Level.

“Even if the plan to replace the former with the latter was the right one, the numbers simply do not stack up (particularly as BTECs will start to be scrapped from next year) and will leave an enormous qualifications gap that tens of thousands of students will fall through,” he added.

Both the Labour party and Liberal Democrats have made a commitment to pause and review the plan to scrap most BTECs if either win the next general election.

‘Worrying’ drop-out rate confirmed

Figures released alongside the action plan confirm that one in three T Level students in wave two dropped out, as previously reported by FE Week. These students enrolled on a T Level in 2021 and were due to complete in 2023. 

Of the 5,321 students in the cohort, 3,510 – 66 per cent – completed the course and assessment. But 1,086 dropped T Levels for another course and a further 682 withdrew from education altogether.

Most students who dropped T Levels for another course chose a different level-3 qualification. The next most popular choice was a level-3 apprenticeship. 

DfE data shows students taking T Levels are more likely to drop out than for other level-3 qualifications. 

One in five students taking large vocational or technical qualifications other than T Levels in 2021 withdrew, compared to one in three T Level students. Just one in 10 students dropped out of A-levels in that year.

Anne Murdoch, senior adviser in college leadership at the Association of School and College Leaders, said T Level retention was “worrying low”.

She added: “Implementing a brand-new qualifications system is not simple, and the difficulties the Department for Education are having are understandable to some extent. What is unforgivable is the rush to dispense with tried-and-tested BTECs and other qualifications before T Levels have been properly embedded. There is a risk that many students will be left without a viable post-16 pathway.”

Route-and-branch reviews

Every T Level will be reviewed by DfE agencies over the next 12 months following complaints from providers over “volume of content” and “unduly burdensome” assessment.

The updated T Level action plan commits the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education and Ofqual to review the content and specifications of each of the eight T Level routes. 

The DfE said “breadth of content” and “burden of assessment” could be changed as a result of the reviews, but “without compromising the rigour” of T Levels. The government will also explore allowing awarding organisations to plan for core exams to be taken at different times over the two years.

“We are aware that, in some T Levels, providers have indicated that the volume of content and assessment may lead to challenges in delivering T Levels at scale.

“Providers have told us that the administration associated with some assessment can be unduly burdensome and presents a barrier to delivery at scale.”

The quangos, who are themselves responsible for content and assessment regulations of T Levels, have been told to “explore opportunities” to reduce assessment admin burdens on providers.

As well as input from IfATE and Ofqual, new “curriculum reference groups” made up of T Level teachers and industry experts will “suggest improvements” to the qualifications and provide feedback on proposed changes. 

Cath Sezen, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges, said: “For some students, T Levels are absolutely the right qualification to take, and colleges have reported great success on student pathways into industry and higher education. 

“However, we have been clear that T Levels are not for every student wanting to study a level-3 vocational or technical qualification, and that the speed at which they are being rolled out alongside the scrapping of BTECs and other applied general qualifications is misguided.”

Reviews will take place in the order the routes were introduced, beginning with T Levels in education, digital, construction and health and science. They will conclude by the summer with a view to introducing changes from next year. 

Transition year woes

Entry rates on the T Level foundation year, previously known as the T Level transition programme, increased to 7,000 in 2023, up from 5,200 the year before. 

The programme is a one-year post-GCSE study course aimed at students who would like to do a T Level but are not ready for its academic and technical demands. The programme’s primary purpose is to move students on to a full T Level.  

While starts are increasing, new data reveals completions and progression are decreasing. 

DfE figures show 85 per cent of participants completed the foundation year in 2021/22, down from 90 per cent the year before. 

But while half of completers progressed to a level-3 course or apprenticeship, just 8 per cent of T Level foundation-year students progressed to a T Level. 

DfE said the transition year’s 51 per cent progression rate to level 3 was higher than other classroom-based level-2 courses (44 per cent). 

“A key priority for us is to understand how we and providers can support more students to progress to T Levels as their level-3 choice,” the action plan stated.

The DfE is introducing a new “certificate of participation” this year for anyone who completes the course.

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  1. Dan Jones

    I imagine the Public Accounts Committee needs to look at the value of the near two billion spent on the ongoing implementation of T levels. It’s really the only parliamentary committee with teeth to expose the hubris of Officials in this instance, as it’s clear with the dismissal of recommendations regarding Ofsted from the Education select committee that cross party consensus means nothing when it means Officials have to own up to actually not being right all of the time.

    There is no hiding place. From day one, the sector (sadly not all its representatives have been as vocal as they should) has warned Officials, offered to work with Officials, provided evidence to Officials, demonstrated good practice in existing qualifications to Officials, explained the problems with scalability and geographic gaps, and provided feedback from students on how content can be dry, too academic, too narrow and often misleading but none of it has been acted upon.

    Officials past and present would have you believe they are listening and have offered limited alterations around the edges but the simple fact remains the actions they’re taking now, to ‘review’ things, is simply a get out of jail card for when their new political masters (quite probably) arrive at DfE and ask the simple question ‘how was this allowed to happen’.

    Read between the lines of the statement, the knives are being sharpened to blame IFATE, Awarding Bodies and probably Colleges for taking IAG too seriously and not pushing kids down the T level route fast enough. “The policy wasn’t wrong but merely the implementation Minister”…

  2. Rachel

    My son started a T-level in Business in September and looks like he won’t be able to complete the course. He needs a work placement and hasn’t been able to secure a place as nobody has heard of T-levels! He has contacted so many different businesses but all unsuccessful. Just this week we’ve had an email to say if a place isn’t found asap he won’t have time to complete the amount of hours (305) required to pass the course so will have to be withdrawn at the end of this school year. I wouldn’t recommend a T-level to anyone considering one unless they have secured a placement beforehand.

    • Smayne

      I agree with ‘Rachel’ above. The T-levels sounded good and we were sold on the idea that our son would be getting experience in his chosen field. However, the reality is, there aren’t the work placements to be able to complete that side of the course. My son is doing Computing and his placement was totally irrelevant – it consisted of him stuffing envelopes and shredding documents…
      As a parent, I feel really let down. ICT is not something my husband and I can help our son with and we believed this course would help him to get experience and begin networking with industry professionals, whilst completing the college course. We’ve had a few set backs but he has now changed placement so he is actually using a computer in this one!
      I think in hindsight he would have been better off taking a different route and would urge anyone thinking of doing a T-level to ensure they are able to arrange their own work placement before committing…

  3. Please could the Dof E come and apeak to some lecturers about the T level content and assessment? I teach Level
    3 BTEC Enterprise & Entrepreneurship, our students already do a 45-day placement alongside their course and and are taught and practice real world skills and business tech in college which bulks up their CV’s to meet employer requirements. I see no need to swap this out to a Business Management & Admin T level full of old school theory and dull assessment methods.