T-levels ‘uniquely narrow’ compared to technical courses in high performing countries, claims think tank

A review into the “uniquely narrow and short” technical courses in England has been called for ahead of the introduction of T-levels this September.

The Education Policy Institute think tank (EPI) made the recommendation in an international comparison of technical education funding systems, published today, which said this country’s 16 to 19 curriculum “remains an outlier for its narrow breadth, both for academic and technical pathways”.

This approach “may be depriving students of valuable skills”, it added.  

While welcoming T-levels’ increased teaching hours, the “substantial” 315-hour industry placement and how they “will bring England closer to technical provision in high performing countries”, the report also says the curriculum “looks narrower” than similar qualifications in other countries.

The new flagship courses will not address the differences in curricular breadth between England and countries like Norway and Germany beyond securing basic levels of literacy and numeracy, the report says.

As T-levels will last for half as long as technical qualifications in other countries, this “probably stands in the way” of broadening the curriculum.

EPI’s research was funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, which is working on preparations for T-levels and is co-running professional development for the qualifications with the Education and Training Foundation.

“The views expressed in this report are those of the authors, and do not reflect those of the foundation,” the report stresses.

The government, the report proposes, ought to commission an independent review to consider if the breadth of 16 to 19 courses is properly providing the basic and technical skills “young people need for the labour market and for progression to further study”.

If this means providers have to increase provision, the government “must” match this with appropriate funding rates. The report found funding support for students fell by 71 per cent in real terms between 2010/11 and 2018/19.

The joint general secretary of the National Education Union Kevin Courtney said the government “must learn from this challenging report” and 16 to 19 students need “sustainable funding” and “real support” for living, learning and travelling costs.

The Association of School and College Leaders’ post-16 and colleges’ specialist Kevin Gilmartin urged the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak to address the “desperate need” for additional government funding for the sector in the Budget on March 11.

The countries the EPI compared England against were found to offer a broader curriculum, for example technical students in Norway spend more of classroom time studying subjects like English, maths, PE, natural sciences, and social sciences than their vocational specialisation. Technical students in Austria take courses on entrepreneurship, digital skills, communication skills and, in many cases, up to three foreign languages.

In Germany’s dual-system, students attend a vocational school up to two days a week and apart from theoretical and practical knowledge for their apprenticeship, they also take general subjects like economics and social sciences.

Germany’s system was thrown into the spotlight after education secretary Gavin Williamson pledged the UK to overtaking Germany in technical education opportunities by 2029.

However, the report did note the breadth of curriculum in other countries varies dependent on factors like qualification level and whether it is a classroom-based programme or apprenticeship training.

David Robinson, report author and director of post-16 and skills at the EPI, said: “If it wishes to draw level with countries like Germany, the government must give further consideration to properly funding technical education, in order to sustain quality.

“We must also ask serious questions about the structure of our upper secondary programmes, which are uniquely narrow and short by international standards. The breadth of the curriculum and length of technical courses should be reviewed.”

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “The secretary of state has been clear that boosting further education is at the heart of his vision for a world class education system.

“We are investing significantly to level up skills and opportunity across the country. In addition to our £3 billion National Skills fund, we have announced a £400m increase to 16 to 19 funding for 2020-2021, creating longer, higher-quality technical apprenticeships.

“Alongside this, our traineeship programme is a great way for young people to develop the skills and confidence they need to progress on to employment, or a high quality apprenticeship.”

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  1. Philip Gorst

    If I wanted to learn another language it would be a good idea for me to learn from a native speaker of that language.
    If I wanted to learn how to cook like a professional, it would be a good idea for me to learn from a professional chef.
    If I wanted to develop ‘T’ Levels, I will ignore the successes of other countries, the technical skills that their students acquire, and the life lifting jobs that these skills lead to…………………..and invent my own.

  2. James S

    It’s obvious that those designing such qualifications are incapable of seeing beyond a national patriotic stance.
    You cannot make qualifications fit for purpose if your only interest is ensuring Britishness. To learn a profession adequately means accepting that other nations may be better at specfic things and accept that they should teach you.
    As for ensuring basic literacy and numeracy, what is the point of schools if people are leaving without basic skills, something is failing.

  3. I don't need parity, my craft skills are my most valuable

    T-Levels – the answer to the question no-one asked!

    I served my time as a Carpenter many years ago (on an apprenticeship going from level 2 to level 3 by the way….oh, the CITB was a levy-funded organisation as well!).

    Even though I now have an HNC, Cert Ed and a Masters Degree I am more proud of my Advanced City and Guilds in Carpentry and Joinery than anything else I have achieved. It has also been my most useful qualification/skill. How much do you pay for a crafts person?

    I talk to ‘academic’ colleagues in education and despair when they say they want us ‘vocational’ people to have parity of esteem. Gee, thanks for that….I never once imagined I was in any way disadvantaged or in some way less qualified anyway.

    Every time an ‘academic’ decides we need this they never ask us. Haven’t they tried this before with AVCEs? They take perfectly good vocational qualifications, take out the useful skills development and make it, well, academic. They just cannot see that skills development (the old 10,000 hours of practice) is what makes us different. Not better or the same – different.

    Worse things to happen to FE vocational education in the last 10 years:
    1. The dreadful level of funding – without improved funding we are sunk. FE is bankrupt currently. This is where I would like to see parity…parity of funding with schools, or better still HE
    2. The enforced retaking of GCSEs. I will never forgive Gove or Wolf for this. They did it for the best intentions I am sure – but it is just so wrong and cruel. Three-quarters of our young people failing again every year when they could progress on something more suitable. Linking maths and English within the curriculum always worked best. I didn’t even care if they called them Core, Key of Functional Skills!
    3. HE high jacking apprenticeships (I would have loved to continue my advanced craft and had my HNC and Masters paid for as a higher apprentice – but not at the expense of several younger, less qualified new apprentices where the country needs the skills)
    4. UTCs – good in theory, but they just create extra unnecessary competition for post-16 numbers. Let them join with FE where they can take them from 14 anyway if that is what is best for them. The staff already had the specialist skills and facilities. Just a vanity project for Baker/Dearing that won’t have a long-term future.

    They will throw money at it, take up will low and sometime in the future (like GCEs re-takes) it will quietly be replaced – after causing the maximum damage to a whole generation of students. Rant over…..