T Levels- the new technical post-16 option from 2020

16th December 2019 by Richard Allnutt

By now you will probably have heard mention of T Levels, but what are they and how will they impact on the landscape of post-16 learning options? It is very very likely that this article will be updated as more details are forthcoming and lessons are learnt from the first year of T Level delivery.

What are they?

T Levels are new technical qualifications related to specific industry sectors, taught over 2 years and equivalent to 3 A Levels. It must be said, at the outset that T Levels are Level 3 qualifications.

They will not be offered at Entry Level, Level 1 or Level 2- courses at these levels form a large part of what Colleges of Further Education offer. However, it is likely that programmes at lower levels will need to be adapted to better prepare students who wish to progress to T Levels during their time at college. A lot of students will progress directly to the T Level from school, like they do now for the existing Level 3 technical courses offered.

T levels will offer students a mix of classroom learning and work experience, providing the knowledge and skills needed to progress into related work (paid employment, higher level apprenticeship) or related Higher Education courses (Degree, Foundation Degree). Much like existing Level 3 technical courses (L3 Applied General and L3 Technicals) they will be a vocational, industry-focused alternative to A-level study.

T Levels will be phased in from September 2020 when the first 3 will be available at select Colleges and Sixth Forms.

Sounds to me like they are just the same as the Level 3 technical qualifications available now (e.g. existing Level 3 Applied Generals and Technicals). How are they different and new?

The biggest difference is the compulsory requirement of an industry placement lasting a minimum of 315 hours (approximately 45 days over 2 years). The total time of a T Level is expected to be 1,800 hours including the placement. On both counts this a pretty significant increase on the time commitment of current technical courses. Therefore from a time perspective they are much more intensive (for learners and for the colleges and sixth forms).

T Levels will bring full-time Level 3 technical learning closer to the learner experiences of apprenticeships. In fact, apprenticeships and T Levels will be based on the same standards and both approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.

In addition, they will also have greater academic rigour, although the past few years have already seen the existing range of Level 3 technical qualifications become more academically challenging than they once were. In short, T Levels will be more academic and learners will work towards exam based assessment rather than the predominantly coursework approach of existing technical qualifications. As a result there are concerns that many less academic students might never be able to study a T Level (although they may not want to or need to either).

In summary, T Levels are different and new because significant work experience in industry is compulsory, they are more time intensive and they are more academically challenging. It is hoped that this will help T Levels to be genuinely seen as an equivalent, technical alternative to A-level study, although, at time of writing, there is no clear indication from the Universities about how they view them. The measure of true parity will be, in many peoples’ eyes, whether or not the Russell Group Universities accept them. Currently these older, prestigious Universities do not often accept the existing Level 3 Applied Generals or Level 3 Technicals unless they are offered alongside an A-level or A-levels. However, most other non-Russell Group Universities have been accepting loads of Level 3 technical learners for many, many years now.

Remember, Universities are free to set their own entry requirements for their courses.

T Levels will include the following elements;

  • a technical qualification involving core theory and specialist skills/knowledge
  • an industry placement with an employer
  • maths and English (if not already achieved)

So when and where can I study a T Level?

The option to study a T Level will be limited until full roll-out in 2023. The first phase of these new qualifications will start being taught in three industry sectors at select Colleges and Sixth Forms from 2020. The first 3 T-levels available from 2020 are;

Digital production, design and development- taught, in the north-east of England, at Durham Sixth Form Centre, Gateshead College, New College Durham and St. Thomas More Catholic School (Blaydon).

Design, surveying and planning- taught, in the north-east of England, at New College Durham.

Education- taught, in the north-east of England, at Gateshead College, New College Durham and St Thomas More Catholic School (Blaydon).

So it has to be said that T-levels will directly impact on relatively few learners from 2020 to 2021.

Locally, we will see Middlesbrough College and Sunderland College get directly involved in the delivery of T Levels from September 2021. From this date the following 7 industry sectors will join the 3 above;

Building services engineering

Digital business services

Digital support and services

Health

Healthcare science

Onsite construction

Science

A list of when the other 22 will be phased in can be found here.

I will be going through Further Education before T Levels are phased in. Will I be at a disadvantage by not being able to do one/having a ‘pre T Level’ Level 3 technical qualification?

Not necessarily. Please remember that the current Level 3 technical qualifications have also been designed by industry and approved by Higher Education. The trend towards more academic rigour in technical learning has been happening for the last few years and providers of degrees in Healthcare and Engineering, for example, already highly value the work experience that existing technical learners get. Whilst the T Levels are being phased in, there will still be lots of people progressing to higher level learning from Applied Generals and other technical Level 3 qualifications. Longer term, we do not yet know how the technical learning landscape will look, but we would hope that where people have not had the opportunity to study a T Level, the previous range of technical qualifications will be recognised.

Are there any concerns about T Levels and their impact?

As with any new system, there are some concerns about how T Levels will work and, no doubt, there will be teething problems. A few thoughts from CareerWave;

  1. Work placement. Clearly it will be a big challenge for colleges and sixth forms to engage employers and convince them to offer placements. Employers are already in great demand to provide apprenticeships, internships, University placements, Jobcentre Plus related placements and school work experience.
  2. Academic standard. The greater academic rigour of the T Level will make it difficult for many young people, who learn better in a more practical and hands-on way, to do one successfully. What will the alternative progression opportunities from a Level 2 course look like, if the academic level of the T Level is too high for certain students? How will Level 2 courses better prepare learners for the potential step-up to a T Level?
  3. GCSE attainment. Following on from this, there are reports that T Level providers will expect learners to pass both English and maths before starting a T Level. Again, what will the technical options look like for learners who do not pass one or the other or both English and maths?
  4. Alternative technical options. What will the whole technical learning landscape look like at Level 3? T Levels will exist and will be promoted as the technical alternative to A-level. Will other Level 3 technical qualifications survive and, if so, how will they be seen by the Universities who currently accept them, in light of these new academically rigorous courses?

A lot of these concerns and other questions will come out in the wash. In the meantime, we need to raise awareness of T Levels with young people and families. They exist and, from September 2020, they are another choice for school-leavers. However, like all qualifications and courses they are not for everyone. Suitability will have to be assessed on an individual basis, as will all of the available post-16 options.

Therefore, if you are a young learner or a parent, one of the best bits of advice we have is to make sure you read up on T Levels and speak to professionals who know about them. Of course, our top tip is to take advantage of the expertise offered by a qualified, independent and impartial Career Guidance professional. All of our advisers at CareerWave are Registered Career Development Professionals with the Career Development Institute and well placed to be a key part in this conversation.

This link takes you to the government’s marketing campaign called ‘T Levels: The next level qualification‘ where you will find some very nicely presented information and introductory video clip.