T Levels: The story so far

By Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Director for Optimal Pathways Development

Friday 18 August 2023

Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, NFER Research Director

This blog post was first published in Schools Week on 17 August 2023.

T Levels were introduced in September 2020 as a result of the 2016 Sainsbury Review which found that there was a need to improve and simplify technical education in England.

Equivalent in size to three A Levels, they’re designed to offer a high-quality alternative to academic study. With the reforms to Level 3 qualifications and the defunding of a range of Applied General Qualifications (AGQs), including some BTECs, it is anticipated that the number of students opting to do T Levels will increase. As we now have the results from the second cohort of T Level learners, what have we learned and what do schools need to know when considering whether they’re right for their students?

T Level uptake is increasing

As expected, the numbers of students enrolling for T Levels courses has been rising steadily each year, in part driven by the number of T Level subjects increasing. In the first intake in 2020, 1,235 students enrolled on one of the first three T Levels introduced (Education and Childcare, Digital, and Construction). The September 2022 cohort shows 10,200 student starts were made across 16 T Levels.

Low awareness

Despite this growth in starts, there is still some concern that awareness of T Levels as a post-16 option remains low among young people, parents and employers.

Recent research indicates the majority (63 per cent) of young people didn’t know what T Levels were at all. Moreover, while nearly three quarters (72 per cent) of employers surveyed said they had heard of T Levels, just 28 per cent had both heard of them and understood what they involved. The same proportion (28 per cent) had not heard of them at all.

T levels or not T Levels – that is the question

When advising students about T Levels as an option, there are a few things schools should bear in mind.

Some students may be put off by their academic nature and the amount and types of assessment, such as the employer-set project. Some may also find it too specialised an option choice at age 16 when career choices may not yet have been made.

However, for some students, T Levels have been a beneficial option to pursue. NFER research with NatCen, conducted for the DfE, reveals learners have high levels of satisfaction with teachers’ knowledge and expertise and the standard of teaching and the development of their practical skills. Moreover, learners reported the programme had helped them significantly develop their knowledge of the subject area, understanding of how workplaces operate, relevant practical skills, and readiness to work in their chosen occupational area.

This research shows the main destinations for T Level completers were a university degree, a job, and an apprenticeship. Forty-eight per cent of higher education providers now accept T Levels as fulfilling entrance requirements – including around half of the 20 Russell Group universities. In 2022, 71 per cent of the T Level students who applied to universities secured a place, however this equates to only 36 per cent of those who completed the course. Understanding the destinations for students completing T Levels is essential to determining the value it provides to young people as a post-16 education and training option.

Importance of informed choice

At the time of writing, the Government’s Level 3 reforms are still going ahead for the defunding of a range of AGQs from 2025. However, it is still early days in the establishment of T Levels.

It is crucial that time is taken to determine whether students are taking them up in much greater numbers before well-established, proven Applied Generals are defunded. Continuing with this plan before T Levels are properly established could have harmful and long-lasting effects on the educational outcomes of young people, especially disadvantaged groups. Careful consideration of the evidence and potential impacts is required.

Schools will continue to have a key role, especially in the transition phase, in ensuring the provision of sufficiently comprehensive careers information, education, advice and guidance is available. This will enable young people and their parents or carers to make informed choices about the range of options available to them in post-16 education and training.