Everything from too-strict entry requirements to the exams timetable are stopping T Levels from working on the ground, writes Vernon Shaw
T Levels need urgent reform if they are to become the option of choice for the majority 16-19-year-olds who want to progress into skilled employment or higher technical education.
At the moment, T Levels pose providers like mine significant delivery challenges around the size of the qualification, assessment requirements and industry placements.
Here are the three key reforms I would like to see for my students:
1. Reduce and standardise the size of the qualification
T Levels are different sizes and many are too large. The two-year programme must be standardised at no more than 1,300 guided learning hours for the technical qualification, including employability, enrichment and pastoral hours.
Instead, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education gave too much freedom to employer panels to set guided learning hours for their technical qualifications, resulting in large variations in size.
So for example, the education and childcare assisting teaching T Level amounts to 844 total guided learning hours. But the engineering and manufacturing design and development T Level amounts to 1,360.
This means T Level learners are required to commit more hours to study than their peers on certain study programmes.
That also impacts students who need part-time employment to finance themselves, or who have caring responsibilities – in other words, socially disadvantaged students.
There is also an inequality in how the UCAS tariff affects T Levels. Regardless of size, they attract the same UCAS points. This inequality also exists between T Levels and alternative level 3 qualifications and A-levels.
Providers also face real challenges when timetabling the current guided learning hours into the academic year and accommodating a 315-hour industry placement.
This often results in part of the placement taking place during holiday periods, further disadvantaging some learners.
2. Modularise technical qualification core assessment
Providers need more flexibility to develop T Level delivery plans that work for students and employers.
Many providers deliver the core learning in year 1 followed by the occupational specialism learning in year 2.
In term three of year 1, students sit both examinations, typically 2.5 hours each, and complete the employer set project.
But this is too soon for many students who would previously have been enrolled on an applied general, such as a BTEC level 3 extended diploma.
Staff can only continue to be successful at developing students over two years if the qualification enables this.
Modularisation would open up T Levels to adult learners
Separating the exams and the employer-set project into three modules alongside additional assessment windows would allow providers to stagger assessments, improving the sequencing of learning.
Meanwhile, providers have set entry requirements for T Levels that are closely aligned to those for A-levels and significantly higher than level 3 applied generals.
This is typically five GCSEs at grades 9-4 including English and maths, with additional requirements around science and maths grades for STEM T Levels. This limits access to T Levels for 16-year-olds and progressing level 2 students.
Ofqual chief Jo Saxton also recently suggested that there should be a T Level the size of two A-levels so students could do a T Level with something else.
Modularising them would facilitate this and also open up the qualification for adult learners.
3. Alternative industry placement model
Providers are unable to generate the volume of industry placements required for the full rollout of T Levels.
The industry placement has to remain at the heart of all T Levels, but there needs to be a viable interim model while employer relationship and capacity building takes place.
Flexibilities, such as the fact that placements can be at route and remote working is allowed, need to go further if T Levels are to become the main post-16 option for technical education.
Reducing the placement to a minimum of 4 weeks would result in more placement opportunities and would still be long enough to develop essential sector employability skills.
An integrated work-based project contextualised around the employer and sector could supplement a reduced industry placement, providing an autonomous learning experience similar to the Extended Project Qualification.
T Levels are now at a critical juncture. They require urgent changes to prevent them becoming niche qualifications and a barrier to social mobility.
Views and opinions expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily represent an official policy position of the author’s employer.