A school handed £1.2 million for a new six-classroom, purpose-built block to teach the government’s flagship T-levels has recruited just one pupil.
An investigation by sister paper FE Week found classes for pupils taking the new A-level equivalent vocational qualifications across five schools involved this year sit nearly half empty.
Struggling schools are now even calling for T-levels – in just their second year – to be reformed, and pleading with government to run another advertising blitz to boost numbers.
Salesian School, in Surrey, completed its new T-level block last summer. The government has handed out £183 million to T-level providers for buildings and equipment to help deliver the reforms.
After a one-year delay for Covid, the school hoped to recruit 15 students on its education and childcare course this September. But the school has recruited just one pupil, who now receives one-to-one tuition.
Painsley Catholic College, in Staffordshire, has built a £1 million hub intended for exclusive digital T-level use, including “state-of-the-art learning pods”.
It aimed to recruit eight pupils this year – but only two signed up. Both schools said some rooms were now temporarily being used for other courses.
FE Week asked each of the 105 colleges, providers and schools delivering T-levels in 2021 how many students were recruited this year against their targets.
Sixty-six were able to provide breakdowns. Between them, the providers set an overall target of recruiting 5,360 students but enrolled 3,783 (70 per cent).
4 in 5 schools miss T-levels recruitment goal
Four of the five schools that provided figures missed recruitment goals this year, with take-up 44.5 per cent below targets.
Six other schools offer T-levels, but did not respond to freedom of information requests.
Salesian executive headteacher James Kibble said: “We believe that T-Levels offer a real opportunity, so decided that the best way for us to overcome the perceived barriers was to start to deliver them.”
While he said it was a “positive addition” to student options, he admitted students “feel they know very little” about them.
The school’s “strong tradition” delivering A-levels meant students “ultimately opted for qualifications they know, and think universities and employers better understand”.
On the sole pupil being recruited, he added: “This is not viable for any more than a short period of time, but the potential longer-term benefits of offering this qualification make this is a strategic investment.”
Rules on the grant funding provided for the new building require providers to deliver T-levels for two decades. The DfE can reclaim funding if courses cease, or if funding is used for other purposes.
Adam Reynolds, computer science head and T-levels lead at Painsley, said it was doing “everything we can” to promote courses. But he added: “There needs to be a massive drive from government to raise awareness.”
Zahawi wants T-levels ‘as famous as A-levels’
Government has already run an initial £3 million marketing campaign. Education secretary Nadhim Zahawi has more recently vowed to make T-levels “as famous as A-levels” by the next election.
But ministers continue to water down T-level policy. In recent months they have said a chunk of the mandatory industry placement can be carried out remotely for the first two waves, offered employers £1,000 cash incentives to take on students, and removed the English and maths exit requirement for the qualifications.
Reynolds warned many pupils do not want to put “all their eggs in one basket”. T-levels are the equivalent of three A-levels, in one subject.
Not being able to study science or maths alongside digital courses was a “nightmare” as students “instantly get switched off”, Reynolds added. Leaving one-third of each course for other subjects would make them “more appealing”.
Kibble agreed most students wanted to study T-levels alongside A-levels. “It’s a pity it has to be all or nothing.”
Ofqual chief wants T-levels slimmed down
Ofqual chief regulator Jo Saxton also said last month she would prefer T-levels to be slimmed down so students can study another qualification alongside it.
The Thorpe St Andrew School and Sixth Form, in Norwich, hit recruitment targets on its digital T-level course, but fell short on education and childcare.
Kate Woodcock, head of Year 13 and T-level co-ordinator, said even students with clear career plans feared choosing one path.
She blamed Covid for lower take-up generally, though it may have helped digital courses. “Nobody had their usual open evenings, which are never as effective online.”
The Thomas Telford University Technical College, in Wolverhampton, did exceed targets, however. It recruited four more pupils than the eight planned for its design, surveying and planning course. It offers placements with employers including Balfour Beatty and St Modwen.
A government spokesperson said it would work with providers to boost take-up. They said student numbers nationally had quadrupled from the first to second year, with no DfE targets. However, there are more than double the number of providers now offering courses.
“T-Levels are off to a great start, despite challenges presented by the pandemic,” a spokesperson said.
Additional reporting by Tom Belger.