Our T Level success depends on big improvements in literacy and numeracy

20 Jul 2022, 12:00

Improving English and maths attainment is not exactly a new priority for government and it will be tough to do, writes David Robinson

I was pleased to read in FE Week that the vast majority of the first cohort of students taking T Levels, and their FE providers, found the new courses to be a genuinely positive experience.

Given the scale of this ambitious reform, it could easily have been otherwise.  Looking ahead, it will be fascinating to see what these students progress onto, and what their eventual employment outcomes will be.

There have been concerns about the experience of T Level students, with the availability of work placements being amongst the most common.

However, whilst T Levels so far look like a rewarding qualification for students, the more pressing issue relates to which students will pursue them in the future, and what the options are for those that don’t.

The option for alternative programmes of study became clearer in May, when the Department for Education (DfE) published a provisional list of 160 qualifications that overlap with the initial T Levels.

Upon the completion of an appeals process, qualifications still on the list will be defunded from 2024.

Their removal is certainly a live issue, and was debated in parliament this week. This follows a petition urging the reversal of plans to remove funding for BTECs gaining 108,000 signatures.

Those against the proposals argue that reducing choice will harm progression for many young people.

On the other hand, the government point toward a need to streamline post-16 education, noting that some BTECs will continue to be funded.

To improve understanding of what the removal of these qualifications may mean for young people, the Education Policy Institute undertook an analysis.

We wanted to see how many students in previous cohorts took overlapping qualifications, and whether they would have been able to take T Levels instead.

Our analysis showed one-third of students taking level 3 technical or applied general qualifications were taking qualifications that may be defunded.

The issue is particularly acute amongst education students, where as many as nine in ten would be affected. Once the overlapping qualifications have been defunded, these students may be expected to take T Levels.

However, around a third of these students may not be ready for the more demanding nature of T Levels.

The challenge may be greater for construction students, with almost half potentially not ready for T Levels. 

The demanding nature of T Levels may present barriers to significant take-up

Specifically, over a quarter of students (27 per cent) don’t achieve at least a grade 4 in GCSE English and maths.

Previously, it was necessary to achieve this threshold to secure a full T Level pass. This requirement has since been removed, but it nevertheless remains a common requirement, from providers in order to access T Levels.

Concerningly, almost a third (32 per cent) of health students haven’t achieved these grades. This is followed by 27, 26 and 22 per cent of education, construction and digital students respectively.

In addition, almost one in six students (16 per cent) were taking smaller study programmes than T Levels, suggesting they may not have the appetite or capacity for a larger qualification.

These figures are derived from cohorts without access to T Levels, and as the new qualifications are fully rolled out, many factors will influence their take-up.

Indeed, DfE has introduced a transition year to support students to progress onto T Levels, and this analysis does not take account of that.

Nevertheless, it’s clear the demanding nature of T Levels may present barriers to significant take-up.

This may particularly be the case for students interested in education qualifications, given so many alternatives may be removed, and for those interested in construction, given the step up in qualification size and how few students appear to have the necessary GCSE grades.

More broadly, policymakers will need to consider how to enable more young people to achieve the GCSE grades to access T Levels.

This will be tough. Improving English and maths attainment at age 16 would not exactly be a new priority for the government.

And, despite several years of the resit policy being in place, it’s still the case that (prior to the centre/teacher assessed grades of the pandemic) less than half of students improve their grade upon resit.

Without the government doubling down on existing efforts, many of these students may take one of the remaining non-T Level qualifications.

But the fear is that more students will instead opt for lower-level qualifications or drop-out of education altogether.

This is concerning, not least as almost two in five young people don’t achieve a full level 3 by the age of 19.

T Levels appear to be a good option for many students. But DfE must tread carefully to ensure the success of their new qualifications, without creating a new fault line in the progression of young people.

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