With the Department for Education promising to investigate why only two in three T Level students complete their programme, senior reporter Joshua Stein spoke to the colleges who beat the national average to find out how they ensure students stay on the course
“The first thing is, you have to get the right learners on the right course. I do think with T Levels, they are really demanding,” Alison Leaverland, deputy principal for quality and curriculum at Strode College told FE Week.
According to FE Week analysis of DfE data, Strode College scored a relatively high retention rate this year for their T Levels completers of 79 per cent, beating the national retention figure by more than ten percentage points.
Of the 5,210 wave two T Level students in England that started in 2021, 3,448, just two-thirds, got their results this summer.
Even for a new qualification, the T Level retention rate compares poorly with other level 3 options such as A-levels (95 per cent), applied general qualifications (92 per cent) and tech levels (91 per cent).
A spokesperson for the Department of Education said during results week in August that it would work with colleges to “understand more about the reasons for students dropping out and what can be done to improve retention”.
Suffolk New College was one college that scored a higher overall retention rate, coming in at 80.6 per cent across two T Levels: education and childcare; and design, surveying and planning for construction.
Its 12 students on the education and childcare T Level finished the course, while 13 of its 19 students on the design, surveying and planning for construction course completed.
Alan Pease, the college’s chief executive, put that higher retention level down to his college being an early adopter of T Levels. In 2020, it started delivering the design, surveying and planning for construction T Level, and crucially involved other parts of the college in its delivery to prepare for later years.
“So while we had our construction and engineering staff deliver that qualification, in all of our planning and quality meetings we had a wider group of people taking an interest because we knew we wanted to set up different [T Level] routes in subsequent years,” Pease said.
“We had different curriculum areas involved. We really wanted to use that first cohort as our pilot, and share their experience and expertise with the rest of the college community so that when we did subsequent routes, it wasn’t so new to us because we’d had that experience of running a first cohort.”
Once the education and childcare qualification got going, those staff then knew how to go about the T Level as it was not new to them.
Pease did say it was “disappointing” that the retention rate was lower on the construction pathway, but said a “significant proportion of those that left early did so with positive destination outcomes, going into work or apprenticeships”.
Leaverland said Strode College had a similar experience as an early adopter.
“Having that extra year to go through a [T Level] completion, you learn things,” she said, for instance at T Level meetings where those delivering courses could discuss any issues they were facing.
“There’s a very close communication network between all the T Level delivery teams. And I think that was because we had the leader for digital [their first T-Level] there that they were able to share their experiences.
“I just think you could reflect and share good practice between the teams.”
‘A real-life experience’
But on top of that, the high-tech facilities and good-quality industry placements also inspired learners to stay and complete their course, leaders said.
“It’s just a real-life experience,” Leaverland said. For instance, on their science courses, they have built what looks like a real hospital ward with “simulated patients”, so learners can learn practically.
Her college scored an overall retention rate of 79.2 per cent, across four separate T Levels in digital, education, science and health.
Retention for digital students came in at 90.3 per cent, while education and science scored retention rates of 82.4 per cent and 71.4 per cent respectively. However, health’s retention rate came in at 63.6 per cent.
Leaverland put the lower health T Level retention rates down to errors found by Ofqual last year for health and science exams, so that students’ first-year assessments had to be regraded. “That did impact on our retention,” Leaverland admitted, but she also pointed to health students sometimes needing more one-to-one support due to the intense nature of their courses.
Blackpool and The Fylde College, too, had strong retention rates, with a 96 per cent average. For its health and science courses, it scored a 100 per cent retention rate, while design development and engineering achieved 94 per cent and education and childcare 96 per cent.
For its off-site construction T Level, it gained a 75 per cent retention rate, while the construction, design and surveying retention rate was 100 per cent.
Alun Francis, the college’s new principal and chief executive, said the high levels of retention were mainly down to how the college has “embraced” T Levels. Building on already strong relationships with employers was also “quite critical”, as it “gives the learners the confidence that this is a different qualification and they’re going to gain something more through their time at the workplace”.
A spokesperson for Harlow College also put down their high T Levels retention rate to “good employer links”. Its design, surveying and planning T Level had a 79 per cent retention rate – with 15 of its 19 starters finishing the course.
“The new T Level [also] mapped well to the previous well-recognised industry qualification in this area,” the spokesperson added.
The right learners
At Milton Keynes College Group, 28 students started one of three T Level two years ago. Of those, just one student transferred to another course, with the rest completing. Principal Alex Warner said giving students as much information as possible at the start of the course was essential to managing expectations.
“We made sure from the very start that students who entered T Level courses knew exactly what would be expected of them in terms of college time, high expectations and industry placements. We wanted to be sure students had as strong an idea as possible of what lay ahead and what they would gain, so there were no nasty surprises and every reason to continue,” he said.
Strode’s Leaverland agrees. “The first thing is, you have to get the right learners on the right course,” Leaverland told FE Week. “If you’ve got students that haven’t got English and maths [qualifications], it’s really difficult to then do a T Level.”
Taking the time to make sure learners are prepared for, and suited to, T Levels would mean that they are more likely to get through the courses.
Pease recommended other colleges go ahead with research to drive T Levels retention up: “Be engaged with the awarding body – we had CPD events around T Levels, and we got teachers ready well in advance.”
‘An unfinished masterpiece’
With T Levels being new and so different to the other level 3 qualifications available, it is key that colleges “take [their] time and develop an evidence-based offer, and then bring staff along quite slowly. It’s important you make sure you upskill them sufficiently over time,” Pease said.
Blackpool and The Fylde College is adding new courses in digital and finance this year.
For Francis, T Levels are an “unfinished masterpiece”. Though he pinpointed a few problems with occupational standards and creating consistency between T Levels and apprenticeships, he assured FE Week they would be a “very important part of our college in the future”.