With the roll-out of T levels well underway, I’ve been working with the Baker Dearing Educational Trust on reviewing how well they’ve been working across University Technical Colleges – 20 per cent of which now offer the courses.
What I’ve found, pleasingly, is that T levels are already popular among students. One UTC told me that more than six times as many of their young people had opted to study a T level in engineering than the BTEC.
What attracts students is the industry placement. They aren’t worried about the policy issues. They like that they are going to be getting a 45-day minimum placement with an employer.
While some of the BTEC programme can be quite generic, the T level’s occupational specialism also helps students focus on a particular area that they are passionate about.
The ‘Achilles Heel’ of employer engagement
I’ve seen some fantastic examples of how companies have engaged with the delivery of T levels and where teachers have been able to include them in course delivery.
What worries me though is those providers which do not have as strong a relationship with employers as UTCs do, so do not have networks of local employers to, for example, help advise on the curriculum.
Where providers have a weak relationship with local firms or have partners which make little input, employer engagement will be the Achilles’ heel of their T level provision.
Involving employers with T levels works when teachers invite them to do sessions with the students. Employers can also take students on trips and visits, even prior to the work placements.
Companies can furthermore supply technicians to train staff on using specialist equipment to deliver T levels.
What also needs to be addressed is how, despite the government’s marketing efforts, there are many small-to-medium-sized enterprises out there who are not engaging with providers on T levels.
So at a local level, providers should directly engage with their local SMEs by, for instance, holding business breakfasts so SMEs can come to the table to talk about T levels.
Teachers still wary
The UTCs I have visited ensure those staff who don’t teach T levels but teach related skills like maths, English and science are being involved in delivering aspects of the T level.
In many cases, students are still required to have passed maths and English before they start the T level. This is despite the government axing this requirement last year and is because teachers have realised T level content, projects, and examinations require students to have a higher level of literacy and numeracy.
In some cases, students who have achieved a grade three are being steered towards BTECs – which teachers are reluctant to stop delivering.
BTECs offer much greater flexibility and I have seen UTC students using them if they want to also do an academic programme: A couple of A-levels and then one BTEC alongside.
Another pull factor of BTECs is that when UTCs are marketing to parents, they know if a student gets a merit or a distinction, they’re going to have an opportunity at university.
While T Level students going onto university will be a minority, universities are reluctant about them because they know the courses were meant as a route into skilled employment. I think there’s a fear that students would start a degree programme and not stay on it.
T levels need time
To draw out this reluctance towards T levels, there needs to be more data, especially on student destinations.
Once we get a lot more information around the T level destinations showing that students are getting onto higher and degree apprenticeships, then I think that will definitely ease some of these fears.
T levels, like any successful qualification, need a couple of years to bed in to develop the data and the positive outcomes to win over educators as well as employers.