Launching a new qualification is not the easiest of tasks in ‘normal’ times, let alone during a pandemic that requires full attention from policy makers, government and business. This September saw the official launch of the T-Levels – despite not having seen much of it at all. What happened to the T-Levels?
T-Levels were designed to offer students an alternative pathway after their GCSEs. They can go down the ‘academic’ pathway towards A-Levels, or from now on choose a more ‘technical’ path towards T-Levels (equivalent to 3 A-Levels). These two year courses offer a mix of classroom based learning (80%) and practical industry experience of at least 45 days (20%), and differ from apprenticeships which are typically 80% on the job and 20% in the classroom and geared towards students who know what occupation to pursue (DfE, 2020). T-Levels offer a broader technical education that enables students to access a number of occupations within a sector. They have been developed “in collaboration with employers and businesses so that the content meets the needs of industry and prepares students for work, further training or study” (DfE, 2020). In this way, T-Levels are a move to prime students for a technical occupation early on and thus strengthen this industry sector. However, policymakers and industry have been rather silent around the launch of this new qualification.
Have we crossed the T’s?
The official launch was set for September 2020. A quick look at the official T-Levels website and the DfE, however, does not reveal all too much and leaves us wondering whether they have been taken up by students and employers. A survey of 32 of 44 providers teaching T-Levels by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) in early July suggested that about a third of providers are either ‘not at all’ ready for the industrial placement component of the qualification or only ‘to a small extent’. This is due to COVID-19 and its impact on business. Some employers are cancelling or not committing to T-level industry placements, leaving providers with the increasingly challenging struggle to find alternatives. It remains to be seen whether the package of support announced by the government is incentive enough for employers to keep their commitment to T-Level placements.
Even prior to COVID-19, securing industry placements had already been the greatest challenge of the T-Levels rollout, while also being its most fundamental part. At the same time, awareness of the T-Levels brand was already low amongst students, parents and employers. The pandemic has further “impeded the promotion of these new qualifications by reducing face-to-face access to schools and pausing the national NexT Level campaign” (NFER, 2020). Added to that, students’ industry placement experience will differ significantly to what was originally imagined, due to many businesses (rightly so) requiring their employees to work remotely in the mid- to long-term.
Time for T?
Right now, T-Levels are at danger of losing momentum, with too few students and employers aware of the rollout, employers pulling out due to the impacts of COVID-19 on their business, and the increasing uncertainty over business recruitment. The pandemic has stolen the focus away from a program that was already surrounded by a lot of scepticism and struggled to get proper traction. It is now running the risk of being diminished by the impacts of the pandemic, disappearing out of sight of policy makers entirely, and not adding its potential towards the UK’s aspirations for skills development.