T Level courses canned as low GCSE grades bite

Tens of thousands more students than normal entered FE this year without a pass in English and maths

Tens of thousands more students than normal entered FE this year without a pass in English and maths

Several colleges have abandoned T Level courses this year after falling GCSE English and maths pass rates for school leavers hit their recruitment targets.

West Herts College Group dropped four T Level programmes in recent weeks while Aylesbury College cancelled one course because “unfeasible” enrolment numbers would have left classes empty.

They join a host of colleges warning that lower English and maths GCSE pass rates from this year’s school-leavers have made it harder to hit T Level recruitment goals.

At an event run by Westminster Forum Projects last month, James Scott, chief executive at Trafford College Group, which missed its T Level recruitment target by almost a third this year, said: “There’s a clear trend coming out, which is the impact of GCSE results on the number of students being recruited onto T Levels.

“We certainly haven’t achieved our targets. You’ve got many colleges reporting greater numbers of students on level 1 and 2 programmes, less on level 3 including T Levels and A-levels, and much larger increases in young people having to re-sit GCSE maths and English.”

Chichester College Group T Level development manager James Watters added: “We have seen a drop in our T Level starts for September 2023 due to GCSE results. Our level 2 and foundation year study programmes are either full or oversubscribed as a result.”

Ofqual data shows the proportion of 16-year-olds who passed maths with a grade four or above dropped from 75.1 per cent in 2022 to 72.3 per cent in 2023. The proportion of 16-year-olds who passed English language fell from 77.2 per cent to 71.6 per cent.

FE Week analysis suggests that 38,000 more students will have to continue studying English at post-16 compared with last year, while nearly 22,000 more students will have to continue maths compared with 2022.

Colleges are free to set their own entry requirements for T Levels, but research has found that many require students to already hold a grade 4 in English and maths.

West Herts College Group cancelled four T Levels – in education and childcare; onside construction, carpentry and joinery; electrotechnical engineering for construction; and plumbing and heating engineering. 

It blamed the decision on “low application numbers”, caused by lower English and maths GCSE passes and young people “deciding to study other qualifications in the same subject area”.

Aylesbury College, part of the Buckinghamshire College Group, dropped a T Level in lab science after it missed its 12-student target. Only six students signed up, which made the course “unfeasible”.

A spokesperson for the college told FE Week that lower GCSE English and maths pass grades “have meant that many students have not met the T Level entry criteria this year”.

They added: “That contributed to an increase in numbers on our level 1 and 2 provision as well as an increase of over 50 per cent in GCSE re-sit numbers.” Many of those students went onto a T Level foundation course instead.

The group confirmed that it was running the rest of its T Level courses as planned in areas such as digital and education and childcare.

Colleges have cancelled or deferred T Level courses before. Department for Education research released this year revealed that a fifth – 14 of 62 – of colleges did so for their cohorts starting in 2021 due to low recruitment.

But the continuing trend will add to concerns that colleges are not ready to move away from offering alternative level 3 qualifications like BTECs, which are in line for the chop from 2025, while T Levels find their feet.

Students at both Aylesbury College and West Herts College who were hoping to do a T Level have been moved onto a BTEC instead, with some others switching to A-levels.

But concerns around low T Level enrolments are not universal. Neil Thomas, chief executive at Dudley College of Technology, said the number of students studying its 11 T Levels had risen by 126 per cent in total, which he put down to the qualification “gaining traction in the market”.

He did point to a “deflation in the grade profile of many learners” which meant a “large number of learners” joined the college for level two courses. But that “has not been at the detriment of T Level programmes”.

York College has also bucked the trend. Deputy principal Ken Merry said: “York College & University Centre has not closed down any of the T Level courses that we had planned to run.

“In fact, we have witnessed 400 per cent growth in terms of the numbers that have enrolled on our health science and business T Levels. We have a smaller than expected group for digital, but the course is still viable and running.”

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  1. mark walsh

    FE Week is relentlessly negative about T Level. Is this a policy of the publication? Colleges around the UK adjusted their BTEC, GCSE, A level and T Level provision in response to the changing GCSE Maths / English grade profile of students. Did they ‘abandon’ these courses too? Perhaps you could feature some of the T Level success stories in future too?

    • This isn’t even a negative story about T levels, it’s a negative story about GCSE attainment.

      They gave balanced approach including positives from other colleges that saw massive gains.

      Don’t know what else you want from journalists.

    • Is it not possible to resit GCSE maths and English along side a T level like with BTEC?

      I’ve taught the BTEC level 3 ED in Applied Science for many years, and it’s always been offered alongside GCSE in English and/or Maths (so long as the science grade is a 5,4 minimum).
      I’ve seen off a lot of students who got DDD or higher (meaning they also excelled in the examined units) who managed to also get a 5 in their maths and/or English resits.

      As a chemistry teacher, I don’t see a future for me in T levels as the amount of chemistry in the science T level is so small compared to how much can be in a BTEC. Many universities are still not accepting them.

  2. K. Ingram

    Examining boards deliberately marked exam papers down this year. In my daughter’s school very able students always getting high marks, received grades much lower than expected. When the exam papers were received back and looked through by other qualified English teachers, many were found to be unfairly marked. The boards must have received a fortune in fees for re-marks!