T-levels: optimistic preparations continue but Covid-19 heightens challenges

By Suzanne Straw, NFER Research Director

Friday 24 July 2020

This blog post first appeared in FE Week.

T-levels will become a reality in under two months’ time, as the government and 44 remaining providers push forward with final preparations for delivery in September. As someone who has closely studied their progress over the past 18 months, it has not always been the easiest journey, despite the high levels of enthusiasm and commitment of the first providers.

The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating across every aspect of society, and had the potential to postpone this year’s launch – something that has been in the making since 2017. Despite this, the green light has been given and it is full steam ahead, although what has the true cost of this pandemic been on the chances of a successful roll out?

As one of NFER’s key research areas, a few weeks ago we hosted an invite-only T-levels webinar with input from providers, Government and sector bodies. This was supplemented by findings from a set of pre-webinar questions, completed by a high number of wave one providers (32 out of the original 50).

The discussion started with a focus on student recruitment. This was an issue before Covid-19 struck, with awareness and knowledge of T-levels amongst students, parents/carers, teachers and employers perceived to be low. Unfortunately, Covid-19 has meant that measures planned to address these challenges, such as providers’ face-to-face contacts with schools and the national NexT Level awareness raising campaign, have paused. As one provider commented: “the lockdown has really stifled our ability to sell the T-level with schools”. Encouragingly, though, providers have reacted quickly to ensure their own marketing efforts have carried on virtually.

Discussions suggest that differences in recruitment levels by provider are in some cases related to whether they have taken the approach of ‘turning off’ ‘competing’ qualifications, such as BTEC Nationals or CACHE. There is also an increasingly clear picture building about differing levels of recruitment between routes. Numbers appear to be much healthier for education and childcare followed by construction, with digital more of a concern. Just less than three-quarters of providers reported that current applications are ‘less than expected’ for digital, whereas for education and childcare and construction the majority reported that they are ‘more’ or ‘about the same’ as expected.

Along with recruitment, Covid-19 has also intensified pre-existing challenges in securing industry placements. For a long time, there has been anxiety in the sector around accommodating the extended placement (a minimum of 315 hours/45 days) and there has been a recent call for further flexibility in how it is delivered. Around a third of providers reported that they are ready for the placement ‘to a small extent’ or ‘not at all’. We heard that employers are cancelling or not committing and providers are finding it increasingly challenging to find replacements.

The idea of increased flexibility certainly appears sensible in the current climate, although there is a careful balance that needs to be struck. There is a general consensus that the length of the placement is what sets T-levels apart from other vocational and technical qualifications, and a fear that shortening this would remove a key selling point.

Encouragingly, in the past couple of weeks a new package of support for T-level placements has been announced. This builds on the Capacity and Delivery Fund (CDF) and extends the employer support Fund pilot and the employer support package. Only time will tell if this tips the balance for employers, although in the current circumstances any additional incentive has to be welcomed.  

Overall, the sense we have from providers is that the majority are still generally feeling optimistic about delivery for September, despite challenges becoming amplified as a result of Covid-19. It is encouraging to hear that the NexT Level campaign has now re-started. It will be important for this national campaign to complement providers’ local marketing efforts ahead of, and beyond, GCSE results day. Once delivery starts, keeping a focus on reviewing progress and quickly agreeing solutions to challenges that emerge will be vital. In particular, it will be key to monitor the progress of the industry placement element, including the impact of the new package of support and be prepared to revisit this if it isn’t delivering the traction with employers that is hoped for.