T Level results are welcome but need further scrutiny

Lisa Morrison Coulthard, Research Director at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)

Friday 19 August 2022

This Op-Ed was first published in FE Week on 18 August 2022.

We are delighted to see the results for the first three T Levels in Construction, Digital and Education & Childcare. They offer the first insights into the impact of the Government’s flagship technical alternative to A Levels. 

With an overall pass rate of 92.2% (compared to 98.4% for A Levels), we congratulate this first cohort - not just for taking the new qualification but for overcoming the challenging impacts of Covid-19. 

However, in addition to the actual results achieved, we feel it is important to reflect on the view of the students completing these qualifications. The findings of the first Technical Education Learner Survey, commissioned by DfE and undertaken by NatCen and NFER, provide unique perspectives and rich data from over 700 students. 

Students’ views were positive with high levels of satisfaction reported both overall and with different course elements, including the industry placement, despite the impact of Covid-19 on programme delivery and securing placements. The results published by DfE show that, despite the difficulties arising from the pandemic, 94% of learners successfully completed their industry placement.

Our research also showed that most students found the workload to be manageable and their course suitably challenging. The results published by DfE for both the core component and occupational specialist elements of the course are promising – with 99.5% achieving an E or above (for the core component) and 97.5% a pass or above for the specialist course elements. More than 34% of T Level students who received their results were awarded a Distinction or Distinction* overall.

It will be important to evaluate whether students’ positive experience of T Levels carries through to successful progression into higher education, apprenticeships and employment, as well as how valuable they are perceived to be by industry and HE.

The news from UCAS is that 71% of T Level university applicants have received their places. This suggests that 29% of T Level students did not. The reasons for this require some investigating. We also note that around a fifth of learners did not complete their T Level course and this also merits further scrutiny.

In considering the experience and grades achieved by this cohort, it is important to be mindful of the unique characteristics of this first intake and remember that the first two years of T Levels have been far from “normal”. Covid-19 aside, the cohort size was quite modest (around 1,300 students in 2020 compared to 5,450 in 2021), in turn, class sizes were much smaller than would be anticipated for future intakes. All providers were rated good or outstanding by Ofsted and, due to the smaller intake, there was less competition for industry placements than will be the case in the future as T Levels are rolled out. So, it would be reasonable to consider the experiences of the 2020 cohort to not be representative of those of subsequent intakes. 

It is, therefore, still early days for T Levels and how well they are received and valued both by industry and higher education needs to be carefully monitored. The longitudinal Technical Education Learner Survey which NFER is working on with NatCen will continue to provide decision-makers with survey-based evidence capturing T Level students’ experiences, journeys and outcomes until 2024.

Nevertheless, this year’s results are testament to the hard work and dedication of both students and providers during a very difficult and unique set of circumstances. We wish these students every success in their next steps, whether in higher education, an apprenticeship or employment.