This summer around 1,300 students in 43 providers were the first to complete T levels. This cohort was the first of four waves in the staggered rollout of these new qualifications. At this key moment, it is worthwhile recapping on some of the aims for T levels and what their rollout may mean for students. One of the original ambitions for T levels was that “every young person, after an excellent grounding in the core academic subjects and a broad and balanced curriculum to age 16, is presented with two choices: the academic or the technical option.”
It is efforts to streamline this technical option that have been most contentious. It initially appeared as though the government would remove a swathe of both technical and applied general qualifications. The government has subsequently softened this stance. Whilst funding will be removed from qualifications that overlap with T levels, other qualifications, including many BTECs, appear to have had a stay of execution.
On 11 May 2022, the Department for Education (DfE) published a provisional list of 160 qualifications that overlap with the T levels introduced in the first two years of the roll-out. These qualifications will be defunded from 2024. Qualifications are considered to overlap with T levels if they are technical qualifications, have similar content and outcomes, and support entry to the same occupation.
Here we consider how 2021’s cohort of students would have been affected by the removal of these qualifications. Specifically, we map each of the wave 1 and 2 T levels onto the relevant subject areas, considering what proportion of students in England taking level 3 technical or applied general qualifications in those areas are taking qualifications on the overlap list.
[Figure 1: Proportion of students taking applied or technical level 3 qualifications that overlap with T levels, by route, 2021]
Figure 1 shows that a third of students taking technical or applied general qualifications were taking a qualification that may be defunded as it overlaps with a wave 1 or wave 2 T level. However, there is significant variation across the routes, with only 20 per cent of students taking health qualifications affected, compared with 86 per cent of education students. Around 40 per cent of both digital and construction students were taking an overlapping qualification.
[Figure 2: Proportion of students taking applied or technical level 3 qualifications that achieved grade 4+ in GCSE English and maths and took a substantial level 3 programme, by route, 2021]
It is also possible to look at the educational attainment of these students to assess what proportion may be “T level ready”. Figure 2 shows the proportion of students taking technical or applied general qualifications who had achieved grade 4+ in GCSE English and maths and had taken a programme of study of a similar size to T levels. Although there is no government mandated entry requirement for GCSE English and maths grades, our understanding is that most providers will require a grade 4 or above in both subjects to access T levels. And though in the presence of T levels many students who otherwise might have taken a smaller qualification will take the new larger qualification, there remains a risk that a significant proportion will not, especially in the continued presence of other smaller alternatives.
Across all four routes, 65 per cent of students who had taken overlapping qualifications were T level ready. The proportion of T level ready students was slightly higher for those not taking qualifications that overlap with T levels, at 68 per cent. Digital students were most likely to be T level ready – with 73 per cent of students taking overlapping qualifications and 71 per cent of those taking other qualifications). Construction students were the least likely to be T level ready – with 53 per cent of students taking overlapping qualifications and 57 per cent of students taking other qualifications.
[Figure 3: Proportion of students taking applied or technical level 3 qualifications, by achievement of grade 4+ in GCSE English and maths and whether they took a substantial level 3 programme, by route, 2021]
Figure 3 provides a breakdown of our two possible reasons for students not being ready for T levels. Across all four T level routes we find that, of students not ready for T levels, 77 per cent had not achieved a grade 4 in both GCSE English and maths , and 44 per cent had studied a smaller programme than the relevant T level. The lack of sufficient English and maths GCSE grades was the dominant factor for health, digital and education students (83, 81 and 70 per cent of students respectively). For construction students, it was the size of the programme that was the dominant factor (80 per cent of students), though GCSE attainment was also a factor for over half of construction students.
Taken together our analysis suggests that:
- The majority of students would be unaffected by the removal of qualifications overlapping with T levels, with the exception of students taking education courses.
- Around a third of students taking level 3 technical or applied general qualifications are not ready for T levels.
- On the whole, it is the lack of English and maths GCSE results that may hold students back from taking T levels, though the size of programme may also be a significant factor, especially for construction students.
Of course, these figures are derived from cohorts who didn’t have access to T levels. And as T levels are fully rolled out, many factors will influence their take-up. Indeed, DfE has introduced the transition year to support many students to progress onto a T level, and this analysis does not take account of that. Nevertheless, it is clear is that the demanding nature of T levels, and the continued availability of alternative qualifications in the same subject area, may present barriers to significant take-up. Not only will T levels need to prove themselves to students, providers and employers, but many more potential students will need to achieve the threshold grades in English and maths. There are a host of reasons for improving the literacy and numeracy of students, but the government may now want to add the success of their T level programme to that list.
This publication includes analysis of the National Pupil Database (NPD) [https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/national-pupil-database]. The Department for Education is responsible for the collation and management of the NPD and is the Data Controller of NPD data. Any inferences or conclusions derived from the NPD in this publication are the responsibility of the Education Policy Institute and not the Department for Education.
This work was produced using statistical data from ONS. The use of the ONS statistical data in this work does not imply the endorsement of the ONS in relation to the interpretation or analysis of the statistical data. This work uses research datasets which may not exactly reproduce National Statistics aggregates.