T-Levels are heading, a little nervously, into year 2.

T-levels are the new generation of vocational course launched in 2020: 2-year courses designed as an upgraded vocational route for students following their GCSEs. Equal to 3 A levels, 80% of study time is in class and 20% (45 days) in a work placement.

Promoted to students via social media campaigns, here is the video pitch.

The official T-Levels introduction video

The promise is clear: cutting edge qualifications combining academic study and practical skills, leading to premium employment or further study.

These are work-focused qualifications with the UCAS point clout of A levels.  

Students achieving distinctions in their T-levels receive the same number of UCAS points as students achieving three A* in their A levels.

But few students are taking up T-levels.

If this is to be a revolution in UK vocational education, what will it take to gain Generation Z’s confidence?

We had hour-long one-to-one discussions with ten 20–23 year olds and their parents to understand the challenges T levels face.  

Spread geographically from Tyneside to Tottenham, Grimsby to Glamorgan with career goals ranging from finance to digital design, game development and coding to construction. All were pursuing careers in areas currently or soon to be available as T-Level qualifications.

All had considered both A levels and vocational options. They were evenly split in the route they eventually took.

Is this risky?

At the age of 16 the choice feels like a huge, life-changing decision.

Until that age, our interviewees had faced few decisions. Suddenly things were serious. Parents were worried.

Their thinking was dominated by risk minimisation. Will I achieve a qualification that is flexible, credible and recognised by employers and institutions if I am successful?

Vocational courses are harder to choose than A levels. You are heading down a career path; with ‘A’ levels you aren’t closing down your options

Rebecca, Manchester

The advice available was of mixed quality. Some received personal careers guidance several times through the decision-making process. Others received little advice and made their own decisions.

Almost unanimously our ex-students and their parents felt that the “tried and tested” courses were the best, safest way to go.

My advice would always be that you never want to be the guinea pig

Taylor, Southampton

So what reassurance were they were looking for?

Our interviewees focused on four areas.  

1. Show me what the employers really say

Work experience and enhanced chances of high-value employment are critical to the mix. They saw big employer names and a few general quotes but they did not hear what the employers thought of these new courses.

They wanted to hear what senior HR people in Amazon and the “250 leading employers” involved in the creation of the courses really think.

Without evidence, the students were sceptical about the involvement of the cutting-edge employers they aspire to work for and the nature of the work experience.

Round here, whatever they say, the work experience will be with the council.

James, Grimsby

2. Are the courses really focused on the future?

Our interviewees have had experience of higher education, work or both.

When they looked at the course descriptions, they divided the courses into two broad categories:

  • Faster growing, digitally driven industries: web development and design, media production, engineering sciences.
  • More traditional industries: construction, food, hospitality, beauty, accounting, hairdressing.

    The course descriptions for the digital industries were criticised. They were seeking indications that the courses were sharp and modern but they seemed to lack the attitudes and themes that our interviewees found most exciting about the career routes they were taking.

Cyber security and cloud technologies are not mentioned in the digital services courses. The course descriptions “sound like chapters from a text-book” rather than articulating new skills applied to the real world. 

For the more traditional industries the thinking was also criticised. The catering T-level did not convey the latest trends that our interviewee had learnt as she had worked hard to train in ambitious restaurants.

If the course sets students’ sights at basic cooking and doesn’t include the ideas you need in the best restaurants, that’s never going to be an exciting course you really aspire to do.

Emma, from Glamorgan, now working in Bristol

3. Is that the full range? Are the courses near me?

T-Levels are available in 10 subject areas at present. The range felt very limited. 13 more subjects will join the mix by 2023.

Then there is the practical side – what are the T-Level courses being taught near here?

Our interviewees researched local course providers. The experience was fragmented at the local level, ranging from punchy explanations that link up neatly with national communications to poorly functioning websites with minimal information. 

When they did the maths on the closest location and whether it was a viable option, for several of those living outside major metropolitan areas the answer was ‘no.’

The advert is great but the college nearest here offers childcare, health or digital production and the course website is poor.

Tom, Southall

4. Have they got the kit and are the teachers ‘on it’?

Regardless of their career interest, our interviewees returned again and again to the importance of the latest kit and whether teachers have relevant experience and understand the latest industry trends.

Those who had followed vocational courses described how varied their experience of teaching had been. Dynamic teachers with strong experience had motivated and inspired them. Others had not.

They made a simple but powerful point: vocational courses are about now and the future, so the teachers and the kit need to be up to date. There is less pressure of this kind on academic courses.

The points!

The UCAS points matter.

The concept that a vocational course has the same merit and importance as the A level route promises much.

But this promise does not get over the issue of course quality and our interviewees remained unconvinced.

UCAS points help keep options open, but since the main reason for following a vocational course is to take a practical route and head into premium employment, course quality and the reactions of employers are more important than the points.

What does this mean for T-levels?

Our interviewees gave T-levels a pass but no more.

They support the concept but laid out the challenges:

  • Beneath the headline marketing, the introduction feels tentative and fragmented. How can T-levels be coordinated nationally to demonstrate their strength?
  • Courses do not yet feel sufficiently future-orientated or immersed in the current trends. Can courses convey that they are bang up-to-date and deliver this in the classroom and through CV defining work experience? 
  • Our interviewees are excited by their chosen industries. Beyond the glossy video how do T-levels innovate to inject excitement into the curricula, the teaching and the assessment?
  • Will the work experience really be compelling? If so, it will spread the reputation of T-Levels.
  • Nothing is more important than whether the teachers are inspiring and the learning environment cutting edge. How do T-Levels win that reputation, breaking away from the patchy reputation of vocational education from the past?

Read more on this subject:
Assessment reform – don’t assume what young people will think | AQi powered by AQA
The skills agenda: signs of what’s ahead | AQi powered by AQA
Careers advice: Why is it important and how to improve it? | AQi powered by AQA
What role is there for students in assessment and curriculum debate? | AQi powered by AQA