Employers warned years ago that hairdressing T Levels wouldn’t cut it

Businesses flagged concerns with placements and standards early in the process - but officials overruled

Businesses flagged concerns with placements and standards early in the process - but officials overruled


Ministers were warned by hairdressing and barbering experts that employers would reject T Levels years before their development belatedly ceased, FE Week has learned.

The government’s T Level rollout hit another major setback this week as plans to introduce the flagship qualification in the two disciplines were canned months before they were due to be taught.

Aspiring T Level beauty therapists have also been left in limbo as the government is still exploring employer demand for the qualification, despite being in development since 2021.

College leaders have reacted angrily to the “shock” timing of the decision after extensive marketing efforts and millions of pounds spent on new facilities and staff training. Hair and beauty T Levels were originally planned to launch in September 2023. They were then delayed, with six months’ notice, to September 2024.

Skills minister Robert Halfon announced the decision to cut the courses after hair industry representatives said they preferred existing level 2 and 3 apprenticeships and level 2 qualifications.

FE Week has since learned that industry leaders have been warning the government that the T Level wouldn’t work for their sector since T Levels were first mooted – but were overruled by officials.

Beauty sector bodies were however still in favour of the T Level. Halfon said the government is still “exploring” a standalone beauty and aesthetics T Level to be introduced “after 2025” as the industry wants “a good quality level 3 classroom-based progression route”.

Industry sources told FE Week they don’t foresee the qualification being ready for teaching until at least 2026, some five years after development first started.

DfE officials told colleges on Thursday that the decision regarding hairdressing and barbering “was not taken lightly” and encouraged them to place students on existing classroom-based qualifications or apprenticeships.

This is the second time a proposed T Level has been ditched.

Development of a human resources T Level ended in 2021 because the government couldn’t find an awarding organisation to run it.

And questions remain over whether there will be a T Level in catering, which was originally due to launch for students in September 2023.

The rollout date was pushed back to “at least 2025” with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) at the time warning “it has become apparent during the development stage that there is not a shared vision of the technical qualification”.

At the same time, the catering T Level awarding organisation Highfield Qualifications cut ties with IfATE. The T Level remains without a licensing awarding organisation, but the government’s T Level website still said students can start the course in September 2024 at the time of going to press.

FE Week has learned the DfE hopes to finalise arrangements for the catering T Level “before the summer”.

T Levels in animal care, craft and design, and media, broadcast and production were delayed to September 2024 and are currently on track.

This means employers from the catering and hair industries have rejected T Levels being forced on their industries, despite ministers claiming their level 3 qualifications agenda is “employer-led.”

‘Scrambling for alternatives’

David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, complained to Halfon yesterday that “recent decisions on T Level implementation are both undermining confidence in T Levels and are making it harder for colleges to deliver the high-quality technical offer for young people we all want to see”.

In a letter, Hughes said: “This is the second year in a row in which announcements to delay qualifications have been made in the spring term, leaving colleges scrambling for alternatives a few months before the start of term and six months after they have already advertised and started admitting students to programmes.”

He said he “cannot understand” why it has taken so long for decisions on the hair and beauty T Levels to have been made and called for an “urgent review” of all other T Level routes.

Doomed from the off

Employer bodies told FE Week it was a mistake to “lump” hair and beauty sectors together because the industries were so different.

Tina Ockerby

Hair industry insiders told FE Week employers had been against a T Level from the beginning, but said it was pushed through because government was determined to get the policy in place.

One leading figure in hairdressing training who sat on an early IfATE panel when the T Level was first proposed said they were told to approve the plans.

Tina Ockerby, managing director of the grade one training company Kleek Apprenticeships (formerly SAKS), said employers didn’t like the hairdressing T Level plans “from day one” but were overruled by officials.

“From day one, we sat around that table and said it wouldn’t work. But we were basically told, ‘well, it’s policy, so tough,” she said.

Ockerby, who claims to have been removed from the route panel “for being too vocal, they said I was being obstructive”, said employers were warning IfATE that salons would not take on students for industry placements and weren’t confident the qualification would deliver the standards they needed. 

Development of the hair and beauty T Levels began in 2021 when NCFE won the contract from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education in partnership with VTCT. FE Week reported at the time the contract value for the hair and beauty T Level route was £4.7 million.

The DfE refused to disclose how much has been spent on developing those T Levels to date.

Experts said it was a mistake to join hair and beauty qualifications together. The government admitted as much this week, but this was apparently made clear to them at the start of the T Level development process.

Caroline Larissey, chief executive of the National Hair & Beauty Federation, told FE Week the skills shortages in the hair sector require apprentices “on the shop floor” rather than a two-year classroom-based programme.

“The worry was that we couldn’t get the learners we wanted on the apprenticeship as it was, and then we had T Levels coming in. It was almost muddying the water. We were very much on the side of fighting for the apprenticeship,” Larissey said.

Hair and beauty are “absolutely poles apart as industries,” Larissey added. “Unfortunately, hairdressing, barbering and beauty all get lumped together. That’s why the T Level went ahead, because of the beauty side of it.”

Threshold (in)competence

One reason why employers wouldn’t get behind the T Level was the standards expected of students while out on industry placements.

Ockerby said: “We thought, okay, so students will go to industry, have a couple of weeks in a salon and be shampooing hair. They said no, this is the list of skills we think they should be doing. We laughed out loud and got in to trouble.

“They thought these students from college, that the salon owner doesn’t know, are going to go into a salon and they’re going to be able to cut and colour hair, at threshold competency. 

“We were like, you guys are on a different planet. You think any decent manager in their right mind is going to get this kid and go, yeah you crack on with my clients, here’s a pair of scissors. It’s absolutely ridiculous.”

Threshold competence is DfE language used in T Level policy to signal that a student is “well-placed to develop full occupational competence with further support and development”.

Larissey also took aim at the concept. “They’ll [students] be out with this threshold competence. Well, that’s not going to help us as an employer.”

Keep the capital

Colleges that received capital funding specifically to build and develop training facilities for the hair and beauty T Levels will be able to keep the cash.

But where hair, barbering and beauty T Level uplifts were due to appear on 16 to 19 allocations, these will be removed.

Providers attending a DfE webinar on the T Level changes on Thursday were told: “Providers will be receiving the normal lagged 16 to 19 funding for their students (without the T Level uplift) and should use this to support those who switch to alternative courses.”

Adding to the public funding spent on the hair and beauty T Level to date is at least £3.2 million on capital projects.

Thirteen colleges won funding through waves four and five of the government’s T Level capital pot for hairdressing, barbering and beauty therapy equipment and facilities. Projects were approved by T Level route. In this case, hair and beauty projects were worth between £250,000 and £750,000 each.

The principal of one of those colleges, Grant Glendinning of Education and Training Collective, told FE Week it “wasn’t a massive surprise” to see the hair and barbering T Levels go, but “we definitely need to make sure we safeguard appropriate training routes at level three, including more investment in those apprenticeships”.

While the capital funds may still one day be used for beauty T Levels, projects on hairdressing and barbering can be used for continuing qualifications and apprenticeship training.

The grants had to be used for capital projects related to T Levels.

Funds will only be clawed back if colleges can’t now spend it or use the facilities on alternative hair and/or beauty courses.

The same rules apply to the T Level specialist equipment allocations. DfE said it will monitor spending to make sure it’s spent on continuing hair and beauty courses.

Any building projects that have not yet been completed can continue. The DfE expects these be to used for hairdressing, barbering or beauty therapy training.

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  1. Phillip Hatton

    As one of the two people who wrote the first level 2 NVQ in hairdressing and the first BTEC OND and HND in beauty therapy I know only too well how the government machine can influence qualifications for the worse. I know Tina well and she is always honest for the good of the wider hair and beauty industry. I know and meet a lot of hair and beauty employers and have yet to talk to a single one who would not prefer to employ an apprentice to a young person who was trained via a T level route, especially for vocational areas like hair and beauty as well as catering. Employers will not give the level of work experience that would be required and colleges and other providers are being blackmailed into offering T levels when they know that their students would be more employable with traditional BTEC qualifications. Government has tried to obliterate BTECs twice before with GNVQs and Diplomas. They are hoping for a third time lucky and do not wish to admit what a waste of time and effort they have put onto our FE sector. Ifate should be independent, they are not.

    • As an example of how certain officials within the department view the concept of ’employer led’, some years ago a senior civil servant met with our board of employer directors to say that they wanted our engineering apprentices on site from day one rather than in our training centre. Every one of our (COMAH regulated) employers, most of whom were senior engineers with many years of industry experience, made it very clear that apprentices would be seriously injured or worse if they didn’t receive the appropriate health and safety and operational awareness and competency training before going onto site (and at least one of our employers doesn’t allow anyone under 18 onto site anyway
      as they operate in the nuclear sector). The individual concerned was having none of it and tried to force the issue regardless (it was embarrassing, shocking amd bewildering to watch someone so blatantly disregard the common sense view of industry experts), including by triggering an Ofsted inspection (as we were told by the lead inspector at the time, who was just as angry at the behaviour of the individual concerned). This is not made up, and that person still works in a senior role in the department.

  2. Michele Alcaide

    As far as I can see, T-levels are a complete farce. They are supposed to be the equivalent of 3 A-levels and are good enough for universities. Indeed, many of the universities now accept T-levels. Comparing my two daughters Alevel work to my stepsons T-level work, they are incomparable. There is no way a T Level student is prepared for moving to uni. There is no independent study whatsoever, they are sometimes in school for just thirty minutes a day, no written work, minimal testing. The T Level students who do get a university place are going to have a huge shock as they do not have the skills.
    In terms of work placements, this is also a shambles. The college have basically told me stepson to find anything! He starts in a few weeks and there has been no contact with the company he has found himself to ensure that the training meets the standards required and that he is going to be learning what he needs. There are not enough companies that have the time or the money to accommodate training students. I feel that this is going to turn out to be a be a complete waste of student’s time and taxpayers money.

  3. Rob Smith

    Coming from the perspective of working for a provider who currently deliver the T-Level, albeit in a very different industry, there have always been massive concerns around the placement of students in a very fluid industry, the length of placement, which employers were consulted and who actually thought it was a good idea to replace the BTEC!

    To compound everything, we now have students who have really excelled at T-Level who cannot go to their chosen University because some Universities do not see the T-Level as valid currency….absolute madness!!