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.
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.”
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.