Just one in seven of the first students who studied a course designed to prepare them for T Levels chose to progress on to a full T Level, FE Week can reveal.
English and maths requirements, a lack of suitable work placements and more attractive qualification offers have all been cited as factors in the low transition rate.
It comes as the government ploughs ahead with controversial plans to defund alternative level 3 qualifications, such as BTECs, that overlap with T Levels, from 2024.
Ministers have been urged by unions to reverse the “rash” cuts to alternative T Level courses amid the “very concerning” figures.
But college leaders, along with the Department for Education, insist it is too early to write off the course and blamed Covid-19 for the low transition rate.
Just 14% of pre-T Level students move on to full T Level
The T Level Transition Programme (TLTP) is a one-year post-GCSE study course aimed at students who would like to do a T Level but are not quite ready for its academic and technical demands. The programme’s primary purpose is to move students on to a full T Level.
Figures obtained by FE Week following a freedom of information request show that 847 students started a T Level transition programme in 2020, of whom 118, or 14 per cent, went on to start a full T Level the following year.
A further 277 students from the first TLTP cohort chose to progress on to other level 3 courses, such as BTECs, or an advanced or higher-level apprenticeship.
The transition programme was rolled out in parallel with the first three T Levels – in construction, digital and education, and childcare – in 2020. Thirty-two colleges and schools delivered the TLTP in 2020/21 and it is currently being delivered by around 70 providers this academic year.
Colleges that spoke to FE Week, most of whom did not want to be named, said the academically rigorous nature of T Levels, namely requirements around English and maths, was the key reason for why students opted to not go on to study a full T Level.
Students were originally required to achieve either a grade 4 in English and maths GCSE or level 2 in functional skills to pass their T Level programme. But this exit requirement was removed mid-way through the first cohort, in November 2021, after the DfE “consistently” heard of some students being put off taking a T Level because of the rule.
T Level students are now only required to work towards the attainment of maths and English if they have not already achieved grade 4 at GCSE, as they do on other 16-to-19 programmes.
Colleges are free to set their own entry requirements, but research has found that many require students to already hold a grade 4 in English and maths.
One of those colleges is HCUC (Harrow College & Uxbridge College). The college had 52 students complete the T Level transition programme in 2020/21, but only one chose to move on to a full T Level. The rest opted instead for a BTEC in digital, and an apprenticeship or one-year level 3 alternative in early years.
An HCUC spokesperson said the college’s aim with the transition programme was to enable students “to develop the widest skills-set available, based on their individual talents and challenges, to ensure their progression options are as flexible as possible and meet their needs as closely as possible”.
Numerous other colleges reported that transition students opted for more practical courses with less focus on exams, partly because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
As part of the TLTP, students are expected to undertake “appropriate work experience activities” to prepare them for the mandatory 45-day minimum industry placement component of a full T Level.
Research conducted by the NFER on behalf of the DfE was published this week and reported that “very few” students were able to secure placements in the first year of the transition programme because of Covid, which put them off going for a full T Level.
‘We cannot judge the programme on the basis of one year of data’
Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said: “Given the impact of Covid on the first cohort of students embarking on the T Level transition programme, it is too early to write off the programme.”
She added that the AoC believes overall progression from the transition programme was “positive” and recommended that progression outcomes “are evaluated over the next couple of years as more T Level are being introduced”.
But Jo Grady, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the government should find the figures obtained by FE Week “very concerning”.
“It is yet more evidence that the government has made a rash decision in stripping away funding for tried and tested level 3 qualifications like BTECs,” she added. “If the government cares about student choice and opportunity, it needs to reverse the BTEC cuts and stop dictating disastrous policy that runs against the advice of the sector.”
Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the data shows that embarking on a T Level requires a “very big commitment from the student concerned”.
“We are sure T Levels will be a very good option for students confident about their future careers, but this is not the case for many young people, and this is why we have repeatedly argued that a full suite of BTECs and other applied general qualifications should be retained to give young people a range of options,” he added.
The DfE agreed with Sezen: “We cannot judge the programme on the basis of one year of data. The first year of delivery is likely to have been atypical for a number of reasons. This is a new programme, T Levels themselves are new, and providers will still be learning what works in supporting students to progress on to T Levels.
“It was also introduced amid the pandemic, which will have impacted on students and the delivery of the programme. Progression to T Levels may not therefore be representative, and we will continue monitoring T Level progression for subsequent cohorts.”