T Levels and post-16 curriculum reforms

By Chris Carr posted 21-12-2021 11:10


First introduced in 2020, T Levels are the product of wide ranging reforms to post 16 technical education. Designed to address the shortage of young people with technical skills in key occupational areas, they aim to provide an alternative (but equitable) route of progression to that of A-Levels, focusing not just on knowledge but also the skills and behaviours needed to achieve threshold competence – the minimum level of competence required to access employment within a given occupational field.

A total of 23 T Levels are being introduced in ‘waves’ at selected providers, with the first three T Levels having commenced in September 2020, a second wave of seven T Levels in September 2021 and the remaining T Levels starting in September 2022 or 2023. The T Level Transition Programme provides support for learners who are not yet ready to access level 3 provision and aims to develop key knowledge and skills.

How do T Levels compare to other Level 3 qualifications?

T Levels are much bigger in size than other Level 3 qualifications. They are studied over two years and have an equivalent UCAS tariff of three A Levels, with total guided learning time, on average, of around 1800 hours. The technical qualification is broadly divided into ‘core’ content which is externally assessed through examinations and employer set/approved projects and an occupational specialism, focused on a specific occupational field and assessed by means of assignments. One of the unique aspects of the qualification is that of the additional industry placement with an employer which accounts for between 315-420 learning hours (45-60 days). Until recently, learners were also required to have a Level 2 Maths and English qualification as an exit requirement before certification could be awarded.

Although T Levels are primarily designed to provide progression to employment, they can also support progression to higher education – either traditional HE courses or higher apprenticeships. The National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) 2019 report on ‘How are Providers Preparing for Delivery’ is a good starting point to understand how T Levels compare to other qualifications.

What challenges exist?

Various challenges have been highlighted by the sector as the first two waves of T Levels have been introduced. These have included difficulties in sourcing industry placements, upskilling teacher’s industry knowledge to teach the occupational specialism content, challenges surrounding the Level 2 Maths and English exit requirement, ensuring progression routes are established and raising awareness and understanding of T Levels with parents and students.

There has also been widespread concern from the sector on the potential defunding of Applied General Level 3 qualifications (particularly BTEC) where there is ‘significant overlap’ with new T Level qualifications. Much of the concern is around the sizeable population of students who may not be ready to make a firm choice towards academic or technical education at age 16. For many young people (particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds), a blended programme of study, perhaps mixing A-Levels with Applied General qualifications may be preferable, allowing them to keep their options open for the future. The ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign (led by the Sixth Form College’s Association) aims to retain Applied General qualifications alongside A- Levels and T-Levels for this reason.

What are the recent developments?

The Skills and Post 16 Education Bill is currently being debated in parliament. The government has set a clear priority on technical education and meeting the needs of employers, which is reflected in the current drive towards T Level qualifications and apprenticeship training, with an increase in the amount of work based learning.

Listening to some of the concerns raised by the sector, the government has stated that it is “convinced that we need other qualifications alongside them (T-Levels), many of which exist now and play a valuable role in supporting good outcomes for students. It is quite likely that many BTECs and similar applied general-style qualifications will continue to play an important role in 16-to-19 education for the foreseeable future.” As a result, Applied General Qualifications such as the BTEC will continue to be funded up to 2024, a year longer than originally planned, while current plans for reform are re-evaluated.

Recruitment to the initial wave of T Level qualifications has been modest, reflecting many of the challenges that providers have reported, with the ongoing pandemic contributing to some difficulties. Unusually, T Level qualifications themselves are undergoing reform as they are being introduced. Most recently, the Maths and English level 2 exit requirements have been removed as an exit criterion for the qualification, removing what was felt to be an ‘additional hurdle’ that was preventing talented young people from considering T Levels as an option. Nevertheless, the development of Maths and English skills will still very much be central to T Level qualifications. The DfE’s T Level Action Plan 2021 provides current snapshot information on how the T Level rollout is progressing.

Additionally, there have also been changes made to the provision of industry placements, of which the T Level industry placements: delivery guide is a source of comprehensive information. Students can now complete a portion of their placement remotely, with several temporary flexibilities being applied to the first two waves of T Levels (2020 starters can spend a maximum of 40 per cent of their placement hours remotely, while 2021 starters will be allowed to spend up to 25 per cent of their placement hours not in the workplace).

Employers offering an industry placement that commences between 27th May 2021 and 31st July 2022 (i.e. for wave 1 and wave 2 T Levels) will be eligible for a £1000 payment per placement (to a maximum of 20 placements) as part of an incentive scheme to increase the number of placements available.

Keep up to date

Reform and curriculum developments are likely to continue at pace throughout 2022. You can keep up to date through educational news channels (e.g. FE Week), join discussions in the STEM Community and/or join our New to Teaching T Level Science course. For a full breakdown of our support for T Level Health, Healthcare Science and Science, please visit our main T-Level page.

I'd be really interested to hear your views on the changes and how they will impact you - join the conversation in the Teaching 11-19 Science group.

1 comment



22-12-2021 11:53

Really useful overview and update. Thanks Chris! I'm keen to see what kind of uptake we see in our students. In some areas of the West Midlands there are multiple providers offering T-levels. In other areas it's much more limited.