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The government has had to recognise the role that Further Education (FE) plays in overcoming the skills challenges that many UK industries continue to face and the need for a high-quality, technical education option for school leavers.
In response to the current skills deficit, with help from employers and businesses, the Department for Education (DfE) has begun rolling out the new technical qualifications known as T Levels.
Certain skills are becoming increasingly necessary for the modern workplace such as:
- Digital skills.
Many jobs also require industry-specific, practical and technical knowledge.
As some industries struggle to attract skilled workers, job vacancies have reached an all-time high in the UK. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), there were 1.29 million positions waiting to be filled in the first quarter of this year alone.
Post-pandemic and with the tightening of certain visa regulations, some sectors are being routinely faced with a shortage of skilled staff.
The top three most affected industries include the health and social care sector which posted 216,000 vacancies between January and March 2022. Hospitality services have been struggling for some time, with the accommodation and food services sector posting more than 160,000 vacancies during the same time frame. The demand for professional, scientific and technical skills is also extremely high, with the sector needing 131,000 new recruits.
T Level content is informed by both the immediate and long-term needs of learners and employers. T Levels aim to equip students with the knowledge and practical skills that they require to become productive members of the skilled workforce across multiple key industries.
What are T Levels?
In 2013, it became a requirement for school leavers to continue in some form of education or training until the age of 17, and in 2015 the school leaving age was raised to 18.
After completing GCSEs, students were faced with many different types of awards and courses to choose from, which some students found overwhelming.
In addition, lots of young people were finding themselves ill-equipped for the workplace, even the ones who had engaged with their academic learning. The government hoped that the introduction of the new T Level qualification would streamline the education system and help to bridge the skills gap.
T Levels are the new, two-year courses designed to be taken after GCSEs. They are essentially equivalent to 3 A Levels but have a focus on preparing students for the workplace and equipping them with the vocational skills they require to succeed in their chosen industry.
How do T Levels work?
T Levels are an option for students to pursue once they have finished their GCSEs.
Other options students have once they finish their schooling include:
- A Levels – Usually studied at sixth form or college by those who want to continue their academic education (often in preparation for university).
- Apprenticeships – For those students who want to get some hands-on experience in a particular occupation and earn a small wage.
- Qualifications that are not available as A Levels or T Levels (such as sports studies/sports science) or short courses that can run in conjunction with A Levels.
Students can now sign up to study T Levels in a growing number of subject areas, with subsequent courses to be rolled out later this year and next year.
The T Level courses last two years and take approximately 1,800 hours to complete. This is made up of a combination of a 315-hour industry placement, as well as practical and knowledge-based learning in a classroom environment.
The industry placement that each T Level includes is with an employer or business. The aim of the placement is to teach students new, essential workplace skills and to help them to put their classroom learning into action. Employers can offer placements as a block or day release (or a mix of the two) and may also be allowed to share the placement with another employer if needed.
When were T Levels introduced?
The Post-16 Skills Plan was published in 2016, which detailed the government’s plans for reforming technical education, based on the findings of Lord Salisbury’s independent panel and subsequent report on technical education.
The first four T Level Action Plans were published in 2017, 2018, 2019 and January 2021. These detailed the progress made on the development and roll-out of T Levels, between the publication of the Post-16 Skills Plan and the introduction of the first T Levels in 2020.
The first three T Level options were introduced at the beginning of the academic year 2020. Subsequent courses became available in September 2021. More will follow this September and by the beginning of the academic year 2023, there should be over 20 different T Level courses available.
In part, T Levels have been designed to replace BTEC qualifications and streamline the post-GCSE courses that are on offer for those not wishing to pursue A Levels.
They are available at selected educational establishments, such as schools and colleges, across England.
How T Levels have been developed
Employers, businesses and the Department for Education have collaborated to develop each T Level that is currently on offer or is in progress.
T Levels are designed with the needs of the individual industries in mind, with the goal to prepare students with the relevant skills they require for the workplace. They are based on the same standards as apprenticeships, designed using employer insight and approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
T Level Panels made up of employers, educators and professional bodies have worked together to develop each technical education course that is available as a T Level.
The DfE’s employer engagement teams are working with employers to support them to offer industry placements. Providers are also expected to offer support to assist employers in offering placements to T Level students.
What do T Levels mean for workplaces?
T Levels are excellent preparation for the workplace. They have been designed to revamp technical education and attract talented and able students to vocational careers.
All students who have taken T Levels should arrive in the workplace having already had some hands-on experience in a relevant field. This should make the transition from the classroom into the workforce easier for them.
The benefits of employing those with T Levels include:
- Employers will also be able to focus on upskilling new recruits rather than spending a significant amount of time on basic training.
- Workers who have studied T Levels should have already been taught essential skills as part of their learning and training programmes.
- The industry focussed aspect of T Levels should have provided some realistic insight into the job which might improve staff retention.
- Improved work ethic – T Levels students have already successfully completed placements and understand what is expected of them in the workplace.
Some young people are very keen to enter the workplace and start earning a regular wage as soon as they can.
There are several restrictions around working and young people to keep in mind, such as:
- Children can only start working full time once they have reached the the minimum school leaving age.
- They can only work up to a maximum of 40 hours per week (8 hours per day) and there is no ‘opt out’ option for this.
- In England, young people are required to remain in some kind of part-time education or training until they reach 18 years old.
These restrictions mean that it is no longer an option for a young person to finish school at 16 and immediately join the workforce without continuing some form of study.
- A Levels or other further education courses.
- Apprenticeship or traineeship.
- Working or volunteering 20 hours per week whilst studying part-time.
T Levels are designed to help young people bridge the gap between study and work, allowing them to have contact time with tutors and study in the classroom as well as getting practical experience on the job.
As T Levels are also designed to ensure that all students learn the vital skills required by the modern workplace, such as basic maths and digital skills, young people with T Levels will have an advantage in the future over other job seekers.
How do T Levels differ from apprenticeships?
T Levels are designed to prepare students for entering the workplace or for continuing with their education.
Traditional apprenticeships usually have an 80/20 split between on-the-job training and classroom-based study. Apprenticeships are ideal for those who feel confident about entering the workplace at the age of 16 and want to earn a wage whilst studying.
T Levels and apprenticeships both focus on vocational skills and combine practical on-the-job training with study. However, T Levels require significantly more commitment to academic learning and do not pay students a wage.
Why choose T Levels?
T Levels can help students to find skilled work in the future. Students who do not wish to continue down a purely academic path (such as taking A Levels and going on to university) but would like options beyond unskilled jobs, might find T Levels particularly beneficial.
T Levels might be especially suitable for students who:
- Have left school and need to continue in education but are unsure which route to take.
- Are keen to learn transferable skills, vital to the modern workplace.
- Have an interest in a particular industry.
- Enjoy classroom learning/studying but also feel motivated by hands-on experience.
- Would like the option of entering a ‘skilled’ job role in the future.
An increasing number of industries including construction, health and social care and hospitality have been facing a skills shortage in recent years. Hiring managers in these industries are keen to find new, talented workers who they can rely on to provide the necessary skills to keep their businesses operating at the optimum level.
By completing a two-year course and 315 hours of placement, students will show that they are:
- Willing to learn.
By completing a T Level, students can make themselves more attractive to employers and be more likely to be able to find and retain skilled work in their chosen vocation.
What subjects do T Levels cover?
The first T Level subjects to be introduced in 2020 were:
- Education and childcare.
- Design, surveying and planning for construction.
- Digital production, design and development.
From September 2021, the following T Level subjects were also offered:
- Building services engineering for construction.
- Onsite construction.
- Digital business services.
- Digital support and services.
- Healthcare science.
From September 2022, the following T Level subjects will become available:
- Management and administration.
- Design and development for engineering and manufacturing.
- Engineering, manufacturing, processing and control.
- Maintenance, installation and repair for engineering and manufacturing.
The following T Level subjects are planned for introduction in September 2023:
- Animal care and management.
- Agriculture, land management and production.
- Hair, beauty and aesthetics.
- Legal services.
- Craft and design.
- Media, broadcast and production.
What is the structure of a T Level?
Those studying T Levels have to work towards a technical qualification and complete an industry placement with an employer.
Students who are interested in taking a T Level but who require additional support or preparation (perhaps because they struggled during their GCSEs), should consider the T Level Transition Programme. This is a one-year post-GCSE programme that helps students to get ready for studying their T Level by teaching technical content that aligns with the T Level programme.
As well as improving their:
- Digital skills.
The programme also offers students support with work experience and personal development.
It should take approximately 1,800 hours over two years to complete a T Level course – this includes the time spent on work placement. Most technical education courses do not require this level of study time.
T Levels include a 45-day (equivalent to 315 hours) industry placement where students can get in-depth experience within their chosen field and get further insight into their potential future careers.
How are T Levels graded?
On successful completion of their T Level, all students should receive a nationally recognised certificate.
This will include details of:
- Overall grade (pass, merit, distinction or distinction*).
- A grade for the core component (A*-E).
- A separate grade for every occupational specialism (pass, merit or distinction).
The certificate also confirms that the student has completed their industry placement and met any other mandatory requirements.
The overall T Level grade is calculated using the grades obtained for the core component as well as the occupational specialism(s).
Students who pass some parts of their T Level but fail to complete others receive a statement of achievement which outlines which elements of the course they successfully completed.
How may T Levels lessen the skills gap?
T Levels have been introduced in part to help lessen the skills gap in key industries and to raise the status of technical qualifications in line with more academic courses, such as A Levels.
T Levels have been designed by both educators and employers to attract talented, motivated students to sign up for a vocational course and leave two years later ready to join the skilled workforce.
- Essential skills.
- Industry experience.
- A respected qualification.
Those with T Levels will have the benefit of being given both practical training and academic knowledge. They will have completed 315 hours or 45 days in the workplace over the two years that they are studying.
This approach of combining classroom and work-based learning means that students who successfully complete their T Level should have the experience, knowledge and skill to:
- Enter into skilled employment.
- Take a higher apprenticeship.
- Go on to undertake further academic study.
T Levels might help to lessen the skills shortage that some industries are facing as they contain a mix of theory and practice. They are also designed to attract more academic students than traditional vocational courses have done, which may help to diversify the talent pool, particularly in industries where the gender split is very unequal.
T Levels are designed to ensure that course leavers are equipped with the necessary knowledge, insight and practical skill to succeed in their chosen industry.
The government have been tracking the success of the T Levels programmes since they were introduced. Information on the current progress of the T Levels is available to read in the government’s T Levels Action Plan policy paper.