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Employment

What are T-levels? Breaking down the new qualification given £1.6bn funding in the Budget

Rishi Sunak used his Budget to announce £1.6bn in funding for T-levels, marking a shift to more vocational study for teens. But what are they and what can students study?

Rishi Sunak has used his Budget to announce £1.6billion in funding for “T-levels”, as part of a “skills revolution” spending package. 

The chancellor has also promised £550million for adult skills and £830 million to revamp and modernise colleges as part of wider Government efforts to overhaul the further education system.

The new qualification will give teens aged 16 to 19 “the skills they need to earn more and get on in life”, the chancellor has said.

The new qualification isn’t exactly brand new, however. It was officially rolled out in September 2020.

We break down what makes T-levels different, what students can study, and how they’ve been received by the experts. 

What are T-levels?

T-levels are two-year vocational qualifications that can be taken as an alternative to A-levels. 

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Equivalent to three A-levels, they have been developed with businesses to meet the needs of industry while giving students more practical experience in their chosen professions. 

T-level students’ time is split so they spend 80 per cent of their time in classroom learning and 20 per cent on industry placements, which must equate to at least 315 hours, (approximately 45 days).There are also English, maths and digital requirements involved in getting the qualification.

Currently, there are 10 T-levels available, ranging from onsite construction to science, digital support services and education and childcare. 

The government is planning for these to be expanded further, with accounting and finance to be available from September 2022, and media, broadcast and production, legal services, craft and design, and catering to become available from September 2023.

T-level grades will be given as pass, merit, distinction or distinction*.

Why have they been created?

Britain’s education system has long been criticised for focusing too heavily on exams and exam success, so T-levels have been created as a technical alternative to A-levels. 

Education think tank EDSK has criticised A-levels for being too narrow, arguing the current education system has relegated applied and technical courses to second-class status. 

In 2020, 83 per cent of school and college leavers studied A-levels.

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The introduction of T-levels sees the UK move to an educational system more similar to that of other European countries, which allows young people to choose between a vocational or technical route, or an academic route at age 16. 

There were 1.1 million job vacancies between July and September, according to labour market statistics released by the Office for National Statistics, with education charities highlighting a mismatch between jobs available and the skills and qualifications young people have when entering the workplace.  

There are severe shortages of workers in sectors ranging from construction to care work, carpentry to primary and nursery education, so it is hoped that T-levels will equip pupils to pursue vocational-based careers in these sectors.   

Where can you study T-levels?

Presently there are about 2,000 students on T-level courses, at institutions including Bury College, Uxbridge College, East Norfolk Sixth Form College and Notre Dame Sixth Form College. 

Many more colleges will be offering T-level courses from September 2022. 

How have T-levels been received?

College group WCG (formerly Warwickshire College Group) which currently offers the digital T-level, welcomed the new funding.

“We have a firm belief that the qualifications will be integral to the success of the future economy, locally, regionally and nationally,” said Angela Joyce, CEO of WCG.

“These are qualifications designed to generate the skilled workforce of the future,” she continued.

However the new qualification hasn’t been widely trialed, leading some to offer caveated support.

“I think there are risks to the big switch off as T-levels are not yet proven and have operated only at a relatively small scale so far,” said Becci Newton, director of public policy research at the Institute for Employment Studies, who recently led the evaluation of the T-level industry placement pilot.

In the pilot, Newton found industry placements gave some young people valuable connections to an employer, however employers had to be willing to put in the effort to make the placement immersive and progressive. 

The found that when the placements gave young people the opportunity to learn to do something, repeat it without supervision and then move onto next tasks, they could be really valuable. However there is a risk that some employers could lock learners into delivering repetitive tasks that don’t develop their skill sets. 

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T-levels require students to specialise quite early, which will “likely suit some,” she explained, however she also questioned whether “having to make the specific choice of one big, fat qualification at this age will suit all young people.”

“They should gain transferable skills if that choice isn’t the right one but their route will not be as straightforward as A-level learners.” 

Newton also cautioned that “taking the placement, studying alongside and perhaps holding down a part-time job and/or caring commitment was heavy going on some already disadvantaged students.”

T-levels have also been criticised for replacing BTECs, (Business and Technology Education Council), which provide practical, hands-on experience in subjects such as business or animal management. 
Funding for other current post-GCSE options, including most BTECs, will be removed by 2025.

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