2020 Summer Term


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  • Technically speaking...
    With so much uncertainty concerning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Suzanne Straw, from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), reflects on the findings of NFER's research on T levels, and the implications of the current context on the roll out of the first T levels in September. More
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With so much uncertainty concerning the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, Suzanne Straw, from the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER), reflects on the findings of NFER’s research on T levels, and the implications of the current context on the roll out of the first T levels in September.

Technically speaking...

As I write this article with June fast approaching, the ramifications of the pandemic have been playing out across the world. From the economy to education, the virus is affecting nearly every aspect of life.

At the time of writing, it is unclear when schools and colleges will return to ‘normality’ and what that will look like. We’ve seen GCSE and A level exams disrupted, and questions raised about the timing of the new T levels for 16–19 year-olds. And it’s still far from ‘business as usual’ for many businesses.

On 9 April 2020, Gillian Keegan, MP Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, published a letter setting out the latest developments on the T level Programme. She said: “I want to be clear that the Government remains fully committed to continuing with the delivery of both T levels and the T level Transition Programme in 2020 and 2021 as planned.” She stated that, while providers had “rightly raised some issues with delivery, most wanted to continue to deliver the first T levels this year”.

The preparations of the 50 providers who will deliver the first T levels in digital, construction, education and childcare has been a particular area of interest for NFER over the past 18 months. Our first two research studies, published in June 2019 (www.nfer.ac.uk/ tlevelsfirst) and December 2019 (www.nfer.ac.uk/tlevelsfollow), highlighted a number of reasons to feel optimistic. The findings showed that providers: were preparing determinedly for delivery; felt well supported; were generally confident in their staff capacity and expertise to deliver from September; and were fairly confident that they could recruit their target student numbers for 2020, having set conservative targets.

Challenges facing T levels However, even before the pandemic, providers identified a range of challenges facing T levels. The most significant of these were: the size of the qualification; the availability of the full content and specifications (which were published in April 2020); the need for more flexibility concerning industrial placements; uncertainty concerning progression routes; and the low levels of awareness among young people and their parents and carers.

Given low levels of awareness and the vital role schools can play in providing information on T levels to young people and their parents and carers, NFER surveyed more than 700 senior leaders and classroom teachers to explore how well informed they were about T levels.

The resulting research report, published early in March 2020 (www.nfer.ac.uk/tlevelssurvey), found a low level of awareness of T levels among classroom teachers and a low level of understanding among both senior leaders and classroom teachers. Although the majority of senior leaders (85%) had heard of T levels, only two-fifths (41%) of classroom teachers were aware of them. In addition, of the half of senior leaders and classroom teachers who had heard of T levels, the vast majority (83%) were ‘not very well informed’ or ‘not informed at all’. Lack of awareness also extended to respondents’ colleagues, with more than a quarter (27%) reporting that teachers in their school were ‘not at all aware’ of T levels, with an additional six out of ten reporting that teachers were ‘not very aware’.

While schools and colleges have been closed, this has raised further questions about how young people and their parents and carers will find out about T levels. Within this context, the government’s NexT Level campaign (https://tinyurl.com/yxvreplf), launched in October 2019, will be of increasing importance. It remains to be seen whether this campaign will gain sufficient traction, and what success it will achieve in raising awareness of T levels.

New concerns and opportunities

Covid-19 will also raise additional questions as we move through these unprecedented times. Will the status and importance of technical and vocational education increase? Will the increased kudos of the occupations of key workers, who have played a vital role during times of crisis, remain? How will the adverse impact of Covid-19 on the employment market change young people’s education and training opportunities and choices? Will any of these potential changes have positive effects on T level recruitment now and over the coming years? What impact will the financial position of many businesses – many of which have needed to adapt operating models and reduce staffing complements to stay afloat – have on uptake of T level industrial placements?

Adapting to and tackling the effects of the current situation on post-16 options for young people more broadly, and T levels more specifically, will require ongoing collaboration across government, education and training providers, sector representatives, researchers and employers.

As the clock counts down to September, Covid-19 has brought fresh challenges and a new context to preparing for the first T levels.

The enthusiasm and commitment of the colleges, independent training providers and schools we have spoken to is not in question. With the right support, they are determined to overcome existing challenges, alongside new ones emerging from Covid-19, to be as ready as they can to ensure high-quality delivery of these qualifications from September.

As Gillian Keegan emphasises in her letter: “Now – more than ever – it will be vital to ensure that we provide a pipeline of skilled young people that will help our businesses and our economy to recover.” Only time will tell what role T levels will play in this.

Find out more

NFER’s research and commentary on T levels can be found here: www.nfer.ac.uk/news-events/nfer-spotlight/tlevels/

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Keep up to date with the latest NFER research and blogs by signing up to NFER Direct – a free monthly newsletter: www.nfer.ac.uk/nferdirect

Suzanne Straw
Education to Employment lead at the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER)