A delayed Ofsted study into the implementation and quality of T Levels has found concerns that there is too much content and a need for improved planning.
But report authors say the rollout has been “a good start” and that no issues were insurmountable.
The education watchdog on Monday published an interim report into the launch of the government’s flagship new technical equivalents to A-levels in 2020 and 2021, and the T Level transition programmes.
The study, which was delayed by a year during Covid-19 and will be followed with another in 2023, sampled 24 providers (including 10 running the transition programme) to evaluate the main strengths and weaknesses of the curriculum, how well industry placements were being implemented, and how well they were meeting the needs of learners.
Paul Joyce, deputy director for further education and skills at Ofsted told FE Week: “The providers we have visited and the DfE have been very committed to making the T level rollout a success, and we have undoubtedly seen that through our visits.
“[There are] Inevitably some problems with new courses, and I don’t think anyone would have planned to roll out new provision in a pandemic. There are lots of positives to take from it but some learning and areas for improvement to make things even better.”
Ofsted’s recommendations have called on providers to reduce delays to industry placements, offer summer schools and projects to provide guidance to learners before they start their T Level, ensure coherent curriculum planning, and collaborate with employers.
It says employers must ensure their placements give relevant experience to the students’ T Level course, while the Department for Education has been tasked with evaluating the transition programme’s effectiveness and ensuring universities accept T Levels for all relevant courses.
Here are some of the key findings from the report.
Too much content
Teachers and course leaders have reported concerns that there was “too much content to cover in class”, and in some cases meant providers struggled to offer wider personal development or curriculum sessions on areas like money management or mental health.
Some also reported that there was “insufficient time” for re-sits for GCSE maths or English, which are not a requirement of the T Level but offered by some providers to help fill gaps in knowledge, while others voiced uncertainty about breadth and depth of content that should be taught.
Similarly for students, Ofsted found that not all learners were prepared for the amount of work they had to do.
The DfE said the programmes were rightly rigorous.
Delays to industry placements
T Levels include a mandatory 45-day industry placement, which Ofsted described as “broad, high-quality and appropriate experiences”, but many had faced delays as a result of Covid-19.
Providers “struggled to attract enough high-quality employers”, while staff shortages and home working meant employers were often unable to host a student.
Concerningly, in health and science placements learners had to be 18 or over in some health settings and double-vaccinated against Covid-19. They also required Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks, preventing placement starts. Both limited opportunities for younger students on health-related courses, the report said.
Ofsted said it found some employers did not routinely give learners the opportunity to put theory into practice. In a small number of cases, learners were given only basic tasks, Ofsted reported, while some placements, it said, lacked structure.
Joyce said: “We are very aware of the amount of time and of course as numbers grow, finding those placements for providers and learners may become problematic, we will have to see there. But by and large, for the relatively small number that were on courses during our initial work, they were Covid-related issues and sectors like digital, construction, health, that is probably not surprising.
Collaborative curriculum planning
Ofsted said providers linking topics and utilising practical case studies were among examples of good practice in curriculum planning.
But unrealistic learning environments, and an “underdeveloped” curriculum were reported in a small number of providers. Some providers just used the list of topics as a curriculum, it said.
The report added: “Many leaders talked about adapting and improving their curriculum planning after the first year,” noting that the best curriculum planning happened in collaboration with employers.
Teacher recruitment concerns
Some teachers were well prepared to begin teaching T Levels, the report said – particularly where there were strong links between providers and employers.
But some said they did not have enough training, and many who took part in the Education and Training Foundation’s T Level professional development programme “did not feel it prepared them”, the document said.
Some providers reported difficulties in recruiting industry specialist teachers, most notably in construction.
Questions over the transition programme
The report found that teaching on the T Level transition programme – a year-long course carried out between finishing school in Year 11 and going onto a T Level aimed at those who did not have all the skills required for the T Level – was generally of a high standard.
But Ofsted chiefs found it was “clear that many learners would not necessarily progress to a T Level course”.
A lack of careers advice and guidance was cited as one reason, while others didn’t achieve the grades needed to progress onto the T Level.
In addition, some providers offered transition programmes in subjects not yet offered as a T Level course, such as sport, and work experience placements were “not always of a high quality”.
Ofsted has confirmed it will revisit the same providers next year now that there is a benchmark.
Joyce added: “I don’t think there is anything there that we have identified that is insurmountable for any provider. I think this is about tweaks in guidance, in support, in IAG [information, advice and guidance], and in delivery practise.”
Delays in resources
Ofsted reported that “across all T Levels, providers were dissatisfied that some resources from awarding bodies were initially not available”.
That included textbooks, practise exam papers and teaching materials, and frustrations were voiced by teachers in trying to get timely answers and clarity from awarding bodies to their questions.
A DfE spokesperson said it welcomed the findings. “We commissioned this review to gather evidence about the quality of T Levels to ensure the ambitious standards we have set are being met,” the spokesperson said.
“The findings offer valuable insights that will help us to shape policy and tailor our support programmes in the future to make sure all T Level students have the support they need to be successful.”