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A guide to T Levels: the new qualifications for 16-19s in England

Young person being taught at a computer

Image: goodluz/stock.adobe.com

Deciding what to do after GCSEs is a big deal for many young people. They may no longer have the option to go straight into a job, but they still face important decisions about what, where and how to continue their studies.

School or college? Academic or vocational? Full-time study or work placement?

This year, those choices are changing.

Alongside the existing options of A Levels, BTecs, NVQs and apprenticeships, there will now be T Levels in England.

This is a new technical qualification which forms part of a major shake-up in vocational education, as the Department of Education (DfE) aims to simplify the system, while giving young people the higher-level skills that industry needs.

What are T Levels?

T Levels are two-year technical study programmes aimed at 16 to 19-year-olds, offering a mix of classroom learning and industry placement.

They have been designed in collaboration with employers and businesses to meet the needs of industry and prepare students for work.

Subject areas covered by this new qualification will include, for example: accountancy, agriculture, catering, finance, hair and beauty, healthcare and media.

How do they work?

The two-year course will involve around 1,800 hours focusing on three main elements – a technical qualification, a work placement and basic maths, English and digital skills. By comparison, a single A Level typically involves 360 hours of guided learning, plus additional non-guided study time.

Students will spend most of their time in the classroom, where they will learn about their chosen industry through a mixture of core theory and specialist skills.

The practical part of the course will be on-the-job experience through an industry placement of at least 315 hours – about 45 days. Employers will be able to offer placements as a block, day release or a combination of these.

Why choose T Levels?

A Levels remain the most popular choice for post-16 students but increasing numbers, looking for an alternative to academic study, are taking the vocational route.

The problem with that, according to the DfE, is that there is a bewildering choice of 12,000 qualifications at all levels, offered by more than 150 awarding bodies.

Controversially, funding is being cut from about 40% of these courses as the government attempts to streamline vocational qualifications, making T Levels a major alternative to both A Levels and apprenticeships.

Students who successfully complete a T Level will have a qualification equivalent to three A Levels and will receive a nationally recognised certificate.

The DfE said the aim was to ensure all qualifications were high-quality, necessary, and supported students to progress into employment or further study.

How do T Level grades compare to A Levels?

At the end of the course, students will be awarded one of four overall grades, ranging from pass to distinction*. The highest grade is equivalent to three A*s at A Level and the lowest pass is equivalent to three Ds.

T Levels are intended to be prestigious qualifications that open doors to either skilled employment, higher apprenticeships or higher education. For students wanting to go on to university, T Levels are worth the same number of UCAS points as A Levels.

How are T Levels different from apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships suit those students who feel ready for the workplace at 16 years, want to earn while learning, and have already chosen a specific occupation. They spend about 80% of their time with an employer, learning ‘on the job’, and 20% in the classroom.

This is the reverse of the T Level, which will involve 80% classroom work and 20% work placement. Students will gain a much broader idea of what it’s like to work in a certain sector, with the opportunity to specialise later.

What and where can I study?

T Levels are being introduced from September across England at selected colleges, schools and other providers. You can search here for providers.

In the first year, three T Levels will be available in these subjects:

  • Design, surveying and planning for construction
  • Digital production, design and development
  • Education and childcare

Seven more will follow in 2021, with the rest (25 in total) over the following two years.

What are people saying about T Levels?

There isn’t universal support for the government’s proposed sweeping changes to vocational courses.

Although, no one is yet finding fault with the new T Level, there are concerns about the loss of so many of the existing vocational courses.

Introducing tougher, more prestigious technical qualifications may be a good thing, but many believe this will be at the expense of courses designed to support the most disadvantaged.

Undersubscribed courses are likely to be axed, but there are others, aimed at students who struggle to learn or those with learning and physical disabilities, that are also under threat.

Tom Bewick, the head of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We have got young people, who are leaving school who are turned off by classroom learning. They need opportunities for learning by doing, to get practical vocational qualifications.”

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