Class of 2022: Focus on T levels

Class of 2022: Focus on T levels
Date24th Aug 2022AuthorDavid RobinsonCategoriesPolicy and News

Image: Peter Symonds College's first cohort of education and childcare T level students celebrate results

At long last, the first cohort of T level students have now received their results. Since their inception in the Sainsbury Review back in 2016, these new qualifications have faced more than their fair share of headwinds. Even in 2018, before the havoc of the pandemic, the DfE’s top civil servant was sufficiently concerned about the speed of the roll out of these new qualifications that he insisted on a ministerial directive before proceeding with the planned timetable. We could otherwise have been waiting until 2023 for this first set of results. Students, school and college staff, awarding bodies, support agencies and civil servants should all be commended for getting us to this point. 

So, what do the results of this first cohort tell us about T levels?

Students appear to be as likely to complete T levels as they are existing qualifications. Around 1,300 students began a T level two years ago, but only 1,029 completed their qualification this summer, suggesting a completion rate of between 76 and 82 per cent. Though this back-of-the envelope calculation uses a more basic methodology than the government’s statistics for existing qualifications, this completion rate appears broadly comparable with pre-pandemic completion rates of 79 and 76 per cent for applied general and tech level qualifications respectively, and 2021 rates of 87 and 86 per cent respectively. Final and directly comparable statistics will no doubt be published by the DfE in the months to come.

Pass rates for those that did complete are high, with industrial placements driving differences. The overall pass rates for digital, construction, and education & childcare were 90, 94 and 93 per cent respectively. Pass rates for the core and occupational specialism components in all three routes were at 99 per cent or above (with the single exception of the occupational specialism in digital, which was at 95 per cent). These high rates may be a result of the grading for the core and occupational components being more generous than originally planned, to account for disruption to learning and to ensure consistency with the grading for A levels in 2022. However, all three routes had an industrial placement completion rate of only 94 per cent, bringing down overall pass rates. This may have been due to the difficulty of securing a placement throughout the pandemic, although there was more flexibility on what constituted a successful placement during this time. Securing successful placements will likely continue to be a challenge for T level students and may also contribute to whether schools and colleges provide T levels in the first place.

UCAS data indicates T level students are less likely to be accepted on to higher education courses than BTEC students. Just over half of T level completers applied for a higher education course, and 71 per cent of those that applied were successful in securing a place on results day. This figure may go up as clearing continues, but it appears lower than the roughly 85 per cent of BTEC applicants who were accepted in the most recent data. What we don’t yet know, however, is what the driving forces behind these variations in acceptance rates are. For example, it could be differences between BTEC and T level students that make them more or less likely to be accepted, such as subject areas or GCSE results. 

Broadly, we must be wary about taking these results as a firm indication of the future success of T levels or otherwise. There may be a different set of challenges for those T level routes yet to be completed by any cohort, provision of the new qualifications may improve over time, and we know that the first providers were carefully selected and received significant support in establishing the courses. Nevertheless, these results suggest that securing successful placements and progression to higher education (for those that want it) will be areas to watch out for in the years ahead.

Of equal concern is not just what happens to the students who took T levels, but what are the alternatives for those students who don’t. Around a third of the students taking applied or technical Level 3 qualifications are taking qualifications that are set to be defunded from 2024. Yet over a quarter of these students don’t have the English and maths grades most providers require to access a T level. The risk is that these students are demoted to lower-level qualifications. This would be bad news for those students, and entirely inconsistent with the government’s levelling up agenda. 

While it is great news that the first wave of T levels appears to have gone well, we are a long way from truly understanding their impact on students, the sector and the overall provision of skills to the labour market. 

David Robinson is director of Post-16 and Skills at the Education Policy Institute. This is part of a series of special blogs for 2022 results day - read a previous one here.

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