Q&A: Ofsted’s verdict on T Levels

'There remain issues we want to see addressed before these are rolled out at scale'

'There remain issues we want to see addressed before these are rolled out at scale'

Ofsted released a damning review of T Levels over the summer, warning that many students have dropped out after being “misled” on to the new flagship qualifications and that teachers are struggling to teach the “complex” courses.

The watchdog will begin looking at T Level provision as part of routine inspections from this month as many new T Levels come on board. FE Week deputy editor Billy Camden spoke with the Ofsted deputy director for FE, Paul Joyce, to find out his biggest concerns and to ask what colleges can expect from inspection.

Q. What was the most concerning finding from Ofsted’s thematic review of T Levels for you?

“It’s worth remembering that this is a reform programme that’s still a work in progress. We did find that T Levels and the transition programme have been implemented with varying degrees of success, with student experiences varying considerably. As with lots of qualifications that are new, there are some shortcomings that providers and the Department for Education will want to address, including around content, assessment, and work placement. I guess more than anything else that was surprising to me was, despite the [government’s] campaign to raise profile and raise awareness, it was the public’s, students’, teachers’, and employers’ awareness – or lack of awareness – of T Levels and what they [the qualifications] would involve.”

Q. Who’s at fault for the awareness of T Levels not being up to scratch?

“That’s difficult. I mean, the DfE with their T Levels campaign put an awful lot of work in. We saw radio, we saw TV, but that hasn’t seeped through to schools, to school teachers, careers advisers, parents, students and employers who didn’t really understand what T Levels are in practice. Their perception of what T Levels are, in many cases, is not the reality. Many students expected them to have far more practical content than they actually do. And for those reasons they were disappointed.”

Q. The report says students have been “misled” and warned of a big dropout rate. Over the summer, when T Level results were released, we found a third of students who started in 2021 had dropped out before completing. How concerning is this?

“It’s important to say that, as time has gone on, it has got better. But undoubtedly, particularly in the first year, there was a bit of providers not really understanding what T Levels were because they were new, and there wasn’t a great deal of teaching support material etc available to them. And therefore, teachers and careers advisers could not give that detailed information about the course content [to prospective students]. We have found between our first visits and our second visits that that advice and guidance is getting better.

“There is no doubt we have found some students that enrolled this year were expecting a very different course than they’ve ended up being enrolled upon.

“We did find, from our evidence, a variety of reasons for students dropping out. Some of those are undoubtedly going to be for personal reasons, cost-of-living related issues, employment economic factors, but also, student dissatisfaction with courses was a factor and they made the decision to leave.”

Q. Former education secretary Damian Hinds overruled then-DfE permanent secretary Jonathan Slater in 2018 to press ahead with the 2020 launch. Was this the wrong choice in hindsight, considering your findings? The warnings were clearly there. Were T Levels too rushed?

“Timing really is a matter for government and not for us. But as you rightly say, our survey has found that public and employer awareness does need to improve, and there do remain issues with work placements, with course content and with assessment that we would want to see addressed before these are rolled out at scale or more extensively.”

Q. Your boss, Amanda Spielman, described the findings as “teething issues”. Is Ofsted confident these issues can be fixed in good time? What needs to change? Are there enough employers to deliver more than 100,000 315-hour industry placements a year, for example?

“That’s probably one of the most significant concerns that policy colleagues have got to think about. A lot of providers have told us that it’s relatively easy to find 15, 20 placements. But if you’re looking at doing this at huge scale with lots more numbers, it’s going to become more and more difficult to find those quality placements in any given area in any given locality.”

Q. Ofsted’s report tells DfE to “carefully consider the implications and impact of the planned withdrawal of funding for other similar courses to ensure that students are not disadvantaged”. Should the 2025 defunding timeline for alternative level 3 qualifications be paused?

“I think this is a cog in a wider reform agenda. There’s no doubt really that all the issues we’ve identified, the majority of which DfE and others were already aware of, can be sorted, can be ironed out. It’s just ensuring that they [T Levels] are working as well as they possibly can be before these are rolled out to more and more students in more and more providers, and importantly, to make sure that these courses are running and operating properly. We wouldn’t want to see students unable to access courses in certain sectors because other courses have been withdrawn when replacement courses aren’t yet ready.”

Q. Ofsted will start to inspect T Levels as part of regular inspections from this month [September]. What can colleges expect?

“As always, we are not separately going to inspect and grade T Levels and the transition programme. We will look at that provision when we look at and grade “education programmes for young people”. It will be done appropriately and proportionately. Inspectors will look at a T Level route or two in terms of their deep-dive activity, but any inspection outcome or weighting for T Levels will be judged in proportion to the provision we’re inspecting. So if it’s a relatively small part of education programmes for young people alongside a raft of other level two, level three technical vocational qualifications and a raft of other A-levels potentially, the impact on inspection outcome may be quite limited. If it’s larger provision, it will obviously be judged proportionally.”

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3 Comments

  1. PETER MARPLES

    I remember a meeting with Damien Hines PPS in 2016 – T levels were actually his idea based on nursery nursing study programmes (cheap or free labour in terms of work placements). i told him, and produced a paper that it would never work in terms of the volume of placements. Colleges were fudging the placements for study programmes so never going to produce the volume for T levels and any placements competed with Apps and Traineeships and other programmes. He ignored me and pressed ahead and it is a disaster. Placements will never happen so it will be dumbed down or the placement element abandoned which defeats the object. Another example of the DFE and ESFA being totally out of touch with reality at a cost to learners, employers and providers

  2. Personally, I see the emergence of T levels as being a consequence of the raising of the participation age, in 2013.

    Youth unemployment (16&17s) peaked at over 40% in 2011, what better way to help those numbers hitting overall unemployment figures… The figure for 16-17 unemployment figure reached a low of 14.8% in 2022. If you overlay a graph of youth and overall unemployment, they track the same path. (if you look at 19+ unemployment it’s much less pronounced…)

    But, for all those young people to participate for longer comes at a cost to both the public purse and less availability of bodies feeding the workforce. So T levels were conceived and bundled up with ‘simplification’ to get rid of ?,000s of qualifications and concentrate them all into 15 subject streams.

    The only question now is what will Labour do with them – Scrap it, re-brand it or run with it?

    • NIGEL WARD

      One of the answers to the engagement question indicate that employers should be more aware of T levels. Well they are, and they were. During the early conception stages many employers indicated the issues predominantly around funding, access to real work placements and appropriateness to support future career direction and options. For me there is still an issue around the above particularly just how T levels fit in as a part of any structured and fundable career option like A levels or Apprenticeships.