“Many” students have dropped out of T-levels after being “misled” onto the flagship qualifications, while experienced teachers struggle to teach the “complex” courses, a damning Ofsted review has found.
Employers are also being left “disappointed” and “poorly-informed” about the content and structure of the mandatory 315-hour industry placements for T-levels, as the inspectorate warned some placements were “not appropriate” for the subjects students are studying.
Students and teachers have also reported feeling “let down” by the early rollout and fear the brand is already damaged, as universities refuse to accept the qualifications for entry.
Ofsted laid bare the “range of shortcomings” in a government-commissioned review of T-levels, which are meant to be a technical equivalent to A-levels.
The watchdog has even urged the Department for Education to rethink its wider level 3 reforms, which involve axing most alternative qualifications, like BTECs, from 2025.
Students ‘misled’ as teachers ‘struggle’
The watchdog’s research involved interviews with employers as well as almost 700 teaching staff and more than 2,100 students and focused on courses in construction, digital, education, and health and science, along with the T-level transition programme.
The report said confidence in teaching the qualifications was on the rise but warned the courses were “not at all what students expected” in some cases, adding “many” learners reported “being misled and ill-informed about their content and structure”.
Most providers set the entry criteria for T Levels as five GCSEs at grade four or above, but the watchdog found the initial assessment of students’ abilities at the start of their courses is “often weak”.
Inspectors said the practical aspects of courses are “generally taught well” but experienced vocational teachers “often struggle to teach theoretical content in sufficient depth or to set work that is appropriately challenging”.
“Many” providers have experienced difficulties in recruiting and retaining staff who have the required experience and expertise, the report added.
T-level students are required to complete a 315-hour industry placement to achieve the qualification.
Ofsted said “most students enjoy their industry placements and gain valuable insights into what it is really like to work in the sectors they are studying”.
But finding suitable placements, even after the Covid-19 pandemic, is a “barrier to increasing the number of T-level places available in many providers”.
Some students were left to arrange their own placements, while other placements involved “considerable travel, and students did not have the means to get to them”, namely in construction.
High drop-out rate
Around 17,000 students have started a T-level since 2020, but the DfE has so far refused to release data that shows how many stay on for the full two years.
Ofsted reported that “many” left before the end of the course. At some providers, no students moved on to the second year “because of their poor experience in the first year”.
While T-levels were designed so students can enter work straight after completing their course, ministers have repeatedly claimed the courses are a viable entry route into university.
But Ofsted found cases where students who wanted to go to university were “surprised and disappointed that T-level qualifications are not always accepted as a valid entry qualification”.
Ofsted chief inspector Amanda Spielman said there were “some teething issues with T-levels, but in most cases providers and employers seem to be working well together to address them.
“However, we saw a range of shortcomings which providers and the DfE will want to address.”
Ministers must ‘rethink’ BTECs reform
Ofsted found providers had often introduced T-levels because they are expecting that other, similar courses will not be eligible for public funding in the future, as proposed by the DfE.
The watchdog urged officials to “carefully consider the implications and impact of the planned withdrawal of funding for other similar courses to ensure that students are not disadvantaged”.
James Kewin, deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the report was “clear that T-levels are not yet the gold standard, mass market replacement for BTECs the government believes them to be”.
“Ministers need to drop the rhetoric, face the reality and rethink their plans for qualification reform.”
A DfE spokesperson said: “We welcome the recognition of these high-quality qualifications as a strong technical pathway for young people when delivered effectively.
“We have already made good progress to address many of the areas highlighted in the report, but we know further action is needed.”