The birth of T Levels – how are providers preparing for delivery?

By Tom Starkey

Monday 1 July 2019

With the introduction of T Levels fast approaching, further education writer Tom Starkey gives his thoughts, in this guest blog, on the findings from NFER’s recent study on how provider organisations are preparing for delivery of the first three T Levels.

Change is always difficult, especially during the early stages and in an educational area that has seen more than its fair share of upheaval. The introduction of the new qualifications and the ramifications for those delivering them is something that is worth investigating.

Ever since their inception, T Levels have faced a certain amount of controversy. Issues such as their status in comparison to more established academic qualifications, whether they are yet another gimmick that has been forced upon providers of technical qualifications and concern in regards to their seemingly reactive nature given the current political climate have been voiced in conversations I’ve had with educators.  

The NFER’s ‘T Levels Research: How Are Providers Preparing for Delivery? report offers a wider view into the attitudes of those who will be delivering the qualifications to students looking to bolster their skills and achievements when it comes to the world of work. As a commentator whose default position is ‘arch cynic’ I found it to be surprisingly hopeful. Overall, the report illustrates a mixture of quiet optimism from practitioners and stakeholders that is undoubtedly tempered by valid concerns about the readiness of institutions to effectively carry out the new offering. However, taken as a whole, it offers a picture of the depth of thought and consideration that those who are involved are exhibiting in relation to providing the qualification for the first time. It’s this that I find truly heartening. 

“The report serves as both confirmation of the growing importance of vocational training and a warning of what might go wrong if the problems that are documented are ignored.”

There is an underlying sense of pragmatism from providers that the report has captured that tallies with my own experience of teaching in Further Education (FE). Concerns regarding timescale of curriculum development (a turnover of just months for institutions to create a fully-fledged curriculum from the never-before-seen specification) and other problems such as the size of the rollout and staffing, student recruitment and the difficulty in finding industry placements are certainly negatives. But, for me, the fact that they are highlighted within the document from such a wide range of prospective practitioners is proof of the effort that institutions are going to, to ensure the quality of the accreditation (and the importance of delivering quality to those taking it.)

The report acts as a testimony to the critical nature of implementation to the success of a new remit (which is one of my personal bugbears). It makes clear some of the pitfalls in travelling from concept to execution that have previously befallen the FE sector. For me, there are certain parallels to the introduction of T Levels and the GCSE retake policy that had a huge (and mostly unconsidered) effect. But in the case of T Levels, the report shows less of the necessary firefighting that had to be undertaken in the case of pushing through a policy that is an ill-fit, and more of an awareness from professionals of the reality of a situation, how it might develop and their attempts to have some agency in shaping it for the benefit of those they are training.

In focusing on the (still relatively early) stage in the birth of a new qualification, the report serves as both confirmation of the growing importance of vocational training (in regards to a shift in emphasis in nurturing talent in industry) and a warning of what might go wrong if the problems that are documented are ignored. It affirms both the growing status of the training sector and also affirms that those working within it are have great professional insight when dealing with major changes. It will be interesting to look back on this report at some point in the future as hopefully something that was taken note of and used as a way to avoid the obvious issues highlighted by practitioners, making the T Level qualification all the better for it.

Tom Starkey is an education writer, consultant and former further education lecturer. He tweets at @tstarkey1212.