T-Levels: a much-needed step forward in the British education system

It has been a long-standing view that the UK’s provision of technical courses falls far short of European alternatives. Rishi Sunak’s Autumn Budget Review revealed the government’s revitalised intention to invest in upskilling, an increase of 42% (£2.8bn). Included in this figure are T-Levels – a new qualification set to provide an alternative route to the current dichotomy of A-Levels and apprenticeships.

T-Levels are 2-year courses entailing an 80:20 mixture of classroom and industrial placement, respectively. They were first introduced in the Careers Strategy in 2018, and were launched in September 2020. The planned trajectory of courses available is auspicious: digital production, health, construction, and education, shifting to industries such as finance, media, and law by mid-2023.

“[W]e do much less well, and always have done, in educating those whose skills are technical and vocational rather than academic. We focus too much on those already advantaged rather than on those who need more help to realise their abilities.”

– Vernon Bogdanor, KCL

The introduction of these courses sparks debates on social mobility, geographic inequality, employer engagement, financial feasibility for students, and cultural attitudes towards the current distinction between A-Levels and apprenticeships. This article will seek to tackle key growing concerns with solution-based propositions.

Could T-Level candidates be accepted into top universities, particularly when compared to A-Level applicants?

The top T-Level grade, Distinction, yields the same number of UCAS points as AAA* at A-Level. Universities are currently adjusting their admissions processes to the new qualification, with some T-Levels being more preferable than others; some institutions such as Sussex University haven’t yet decided on their protocol. Yet, it would appear that already there are discrepancies in the way that they are perceived by admissions teams. In response to my query, I got the following responses from Russell Group universities:

T-Levels are considered on a case-by-case basis, with some deemed more suitable than others in preparation for the rigorous academic programmes at LSE.
– LSE Admissions

We are currently reviewing the suitability of T-Level qualifications for entry to our undergraduate courses, noting that subject requirements specified at A-level must still be met.
– Bristol University Admissions

Candidates with vocational or technical qualifications equivalent to A-levels (including T-Levels) are welcome to apply, although candidates may need to take additional academic qualifications to make a competitive application.
– Oxford University Admissions

Two aspects concern me the most. Firstly, the idea that some T-Levels are more apt than others for admissions – when the government claims that all T-Levels prepare students for further education – is questionable. If they are not equal to A-Levels, then the government ought to rectify this in their policy papers and outreach campaign. Additionally, Russell Group universities favour students who partake in ‘supercurricular’ activities prior to their undergraduate degrees, such as through gaining internship experience. Therefore, it is concerning that the experience gained during the T-Level does not constitute this in the eyes of top universities such as Oxford.

I would therefore recommend that all universities reconsider this aspect; gaining work experience alongside a theoretical qualification is ideal in a competitive labour market to bolster student mobility and opportunities. It would be to their advantage to onboard these candidates as they will likely be employed soon after graduating. Their commitment to social mobility would be affirmed – as Vernon mentioned, we would be helping more people to fulfil their potential, as opposed to gatekeeping academic institutions for the most advantaged.

Will the placement duration be enough to equip students for the labour market?

T-Levels are co-created by employers in each sector, meaning that the theoretical and practical knowledge will be directly applicable when seeking employment. As a result, this could fill current prevailing skills shortages in industries such as health, finance, engineering, and construction. 315 hours of preparation, if delivered well by employers, could upskill students to meet this shortage. Given that the government is facing criticism over the loss of labour supply post-Brexit, this seems like a well-timed strategy to offset the gap left by European workers.

“We use industry experts to help us review materials for end-point assessments and T-Levels, and they have given us important input on the standard and expectations within their industry.”
Simon Lebus, Ofqual

Will this be a significant burden on employers?

Employers play a significant role in this programme, which will require coordination, training, and monitoring. Ewart Keep argued that for this to work, employers need to be full-time partners; if it becomes too time-consuming, the programme could be unveiled as being unrealistic alongside employer disengagement. If this programme falls through only a few years after commencing, course alumni risk having taken a diploma which did not deliver as expected, such as Diplomas in 2008. However, the placement itself of 45 full working days is conducted nearer the end of the 2-year course, meaning that employers will receive committed students that already possess industry knowledge. As such, I don’t agree with Keep in arguing that the employers will have a full-time role, but rather a part-time one.

The government needs to ensure that agencies like the ESFA and IFATE are readily accessible to train and educate employers for the programme, and be on standby for issues that arise during the placements. The incentive of hiring a dynamic and newly trained workforce needs to be emphasised to employers to cultivate prolonged motivation. The government could also consider awarding employers who demonstrate a willingness to develop students, boosting morale without too great a financial cost.

How might this affect inequality?

Geographic inequality will need to be actively tackled alongside rolling out the programme. For example, a student living in the countryside is going to have fewer employers to select from for their placement than a London student. NASUWT answered that concerns such as accessibility to local courses “have become more problematic with the impact of Covid-19 measures on the education system and on potential workplace access.” I believe that Covid has presented an opportunity to reduce this postcode lottery through the greater cultural acceptance of working remotely. Employers ought to consider providing students with a laptop and router loan scheme so as to avoid exacerbating the urban-rural and digital divides and welcome individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

“T-Levels offer a pathway to well-paid jobs, regular employment, and dignity and professional pride in work. They also have great potential for developing and re-energising the whole country and economy, not just London and the big cities.”
– Russell Foster, KCL

Given that the placement is unpaid, students would have to bear the cost of transport which might exclude poorer students. Both the government and employers ought to consider this carefully – as they are benefitting from unpaid labour, paying for transport should be a minimum requirement. The potential increase in students’ upward mobility into better-paid jobs means that this long-term investment of time and resources by the government is necessary.

I leave you with the words of Russell Foster, who aptly describes the opportunities T-Levels present us:

“For far too long the UK has relied on cheap, poorly-paid, overworked immigrant labour to perform manual and technical jobs. Brexit and coronavirus have shown this to be unsustainable and exploitative, while young people lack truly diverse opportunities and pathways. Training a new generation of professional tradespeople in the UK is a very welcome development and a step away from a society of bored middle-class office workers exploiting an immigrant workforce, and towards a more prosperous and more mutually respectful society.”

Note: all of these quotes, unless hyperlinked, were gathered by the author through direct correspondence with the person cited.

By Monica Richards

Monica is a second-year PPE student from Brighton, UK. She is keenly interested in educational inequality in the UK and the factors which perpetuate this disparity, hence her involvement with Slipstream Education and Elevate Education. This year she hopes to conduct a research project on drug education policy within secondary schools, focusing on benzodiazepine usage in Brighton. Outside of KTT she enjoys DJing, volunteering as a dog walker, and selling clothes.

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