2019 Autumn Term 1


  • Strength in numbers
    Geoff Barton welcomes members to a new academic year and says over the next 12 months, ASCL will continue to evolve into a trade union fit for the 21st century, setting the education agenda, and representing and listening to the views of members across the UK. More
  • The forgotten third
    Chair of ASCL's Commission of Inquiry on The Forgotten Third, Roy Blatchford CBE, presents the commission's findings on why a third of 16 year-olds leave school without a 'standard' pass and the impact this has on their futures. More
  • A friend in need
    Emma Moss's world was turned upside down when she became gravely ill. Support from the ASCL Benevolent Fund has helped Emma and her family deal with the practical and personal fall-out ever since. More
  • Stop the rot
    Former ASCL Specialist Anna Cole explains how schools and colleges can harness the power of the #MeToo movement to help keep students safe. More
  • Time for T
    The first three T level qualifications in digital, education and construction will become a reality from September 2020 but just how prepared are providers for delivery? NFER's Suzanne Straw investigates. More
  • Leading women
    An ambitious programme designed to empower, inspire and support women into leadership has been launched by a partnership between ASCL, the Leading Women's Alliance and Leadership Live. Carol Jones and Gwen Temple explain the rationale. More
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The first three T level qualifications in digital, education and construction will become a reality from September 2020 but just how prepared are providers for delivery? NFER’s Suzanne Straw investigates.

Time for T

The government’s renewed focus on the role of vocational and technical education in tackling skills shortages has led to the introduction of T levels for 16–19 year-olds. Still at a relatively early stage of implementation, it is valuable to consider perceptions of the new qualifications at this juncture, how preparations for delivery are progressing and what challenges are being faced and tackled. Evaluating progress to date should provide an insight into what can contribute to the success or failure of qualification implementation, particularly when faced with the tight timescales that have been set in this case.

The government has set an ambitious timetable for developing and delivering these first T levels in September 2020, which begs the question: How ready are the first wave of providers? The National Foundation for Educational Research’s (NFER’s) recent report, T Levels Research Study: How are providers preparing for delivery? (see www.nfer.ac.uk/tlevels), has shed some light on this. It provides a snapshot of providers’ preparation to implement the first three T levels and draws out learning points for providers delivering the second wave of qualifications. Shortly after the launch of the NFER’s report, the DfE revealed the second wave of providers who will be delivering T levels from September 2021.

NFER’s research included a series of in-depth, semi-structured interviews with half of the first-wave providers. It captures the prevailing attitudes of those within the first organisations who will be delivering T levels and how they are going about the task of ensuring quality delivery of a programme that has had a relatively short gestation period. It presents a picture of professionals who, while optimistic in regards to the introduction of these new technical qualifications and the opportunities they will bring, are facing a range of challenges in introducing large-scale changes so quickly.

Learning gained

The report provides a focus on the learning and challenges in preparing for a new technical qualification. It highlights the pragmatism and optimism from professionals within the sector in putting in place strategies to support successful implementation of T levels, who are enthusiastically grasping the opportunity to shape the new qualifications. It presents a picture of a sector that has many years’ experiencing change in relation to accreditation and that is well versed in the challenges that such changes present.

The first providers have noted a range of challenges in planning for the implementation of the first T levels in September 2020 and some that will become more acute as T levels are scaled up and rolled out. These include (but are not limited to) concerns about:

  • the late provision of detailed qualification specifications, which will result in a limited timeframe within which to produce a workable curriculum 
  • staff skills and capacity, particularly in certain sectors and over the longer-term
  • securing the required number of extended placements (of a minimum of 315 hours each)
  • the lack of clarity regarding where T levels will fit within existing offerings at Level 3 and what the future holds for Applied General Qualifications (AGQs)

Although providers are, in the main, happy with the support they are receiving from the DfE, the Education and Skills Funding Agency (ESFA) and the Education and Training Foundation (ETF), a key issue raised was the tight timescale from receiving qualification specifications to delivering the qualification. The qualification specifications are due to be released in February/March 2020, which leaves just six months to develop qualifications, assess staff skills needs and recruit or train staff ready for T level implementation in September 2020. Some providers were concerned that this tight timescale could potentially impact on the quality of the offer.

Although they are generally confident in their staff skills and capacity to deliver the first three T levels in 2020, with many setting in place plans to upskill existing staff, providers are concerned about staff skills and capacity over the longerterm. This includes particular concerns about recruitment and retention in sectors in which much higher salaries can be commanded in industry, such as digital, construction and engineering.

Providers are also concerned about securing industry placements, particularly in certain sectors and over the longer-term. The digital sector is perceived to be particularly problematic, since there are many micro and small businesses in this sector who would find it challenging to accommodate an extended placement.

In addition, perhaps understandably given their unproven nature, most providers do not support T levels fully replacing existing qualifications (an option suggested in the DfE’s recent consultation). They are more comfortable with T levels as an augmentation and extension of their current offering rather than a substitution. They are particularly concerned about potentially losing Applied General Qualifications, given their flexibility and different learning styles that support social mobility.

Being realistic

It is interesting to note that, out of the two groups interviewed (sector representatives and providers), there was disparity regarding how the new qualifications are viewed, with sector representatives being less positive in general about T levels than providers. This could be put down to a ‘wider view’ from the representatives that included both operational and strategic concerns. But, in the case of both groups, realism from the sector in the face of delivering such a large-scale programme that the introduction of T levels represents, is something that the report brings into sharp focus.

From conservative first year target student recruitment numbers (in an effort to ensure first cohorts are successful) to calls for national support in marketing the new qualifications to increase public and employer awareness, the report affirms that there is a professional understanding of both the advantages and barriers that T levels will present as they become more firmly embedded within the overall qualification network. In one of the final points raised in this report, it is evident that there must be some national facility for sharing effective practice and highlighting areas that will need development as the qualifications continue to be rolled out and embedded over time. This report goes some way to starting this process, and, it is hoped, its findings will serve as a signpost for a future evaluation of T level qualifications.

Understanding T Levels, Half-day Workshops

ASCL PD is running free workshops for all teaching staff who want to understand more about T levels. Book your place at: www.ascl.org.uk/Tlevels

NFER Direct

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)