What are T levels and when are they starting?

Theresa May says new vocational qualifications will allow the UK to compete globally

Theresa May, campaign trail
The prime minister on the campaign trail last year
(Image credit: Rebecca Naden/AFP/Getty Images)

The first schools and colleges that will teach new technical qualifications called T levels was announced this week, as Theresa May said that the courses will “help thousands of people across the country compete globally”.

The qualifications are intended as a vocational alternative to A levels in England and will cover subjects including construction, education, childcare and engineering and manufacturing.

“Everyone should be able to have access to an education that suits them, but we know that for those that don’t choose to go to university, the routes into further technical and vocational training can be hard to navigate,” the prime minister said.

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“T levels provide a high-quality, technical alternative to A levels, ensuring thousands of people across the country have the skills we need to compete globally - a vital part of our modern industrial strategy.”

But Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre for Education and Employment Research at the University of Buckingham, warned parents against encouraging their children to take the new courses, due to be taught from September 2020.

“It must be absolutely clear they will be of value to employers before kids risk their futures," he told The Sunday Times.

Meanwhile, Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, said the Government was attempting to hide its “failure to properly prepare” for T levels.

“World-class technical education cannot simply be delivered by press release, while avoiding the impact of years of cuts on the sector,” she said.

What are T levels?

First announced by Chancellor Philip Hammond in the 2017 Budget, the 22 planned courses will feature more teaching hours than most current technical programmes and will include a compulsory work placement of between 40 and 60 days.

Responding to the Government’s T Level consultation, published yesterday, Education Secretary Damian Hinds said that the courses would equip youngsters with the skills needed for “the jobs of tomorrow”.

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What industry areas do they cover?

Technical routes will be developed in 15 sector areas:

Agriculture, environmental and animal careBusiness and administrativeCatering and hospitalityChildcare and educationConstructionCreative and designDigitalEngineering and manufacturingHair and beautyHealth and scienceLegal, finance and accountingProtective servicesSales, marketing and procurementSocial careTransport and logistics

According to Schools Week’s Gemma Gathercole, although there are 15 sectors, there will be more qualifications than that as “some of them are broad and cover a range of occupational areas, so it wouldn’t be possible to develop a single qualification that would cover the whole areas”.

Will they be ready in time for 2020?

The BBC reports that Jonathan Slater, a senior civil servant at the Department for Education, formally registered concerns about the programme earlier this month, saying it would be “challenging” to ensure that the first three T levels are ready to be taught from 2020 to a “consistently high standard”.

In a letter to the education secretary, Slater said that he had a duty to consider the “regularity, propriety, value for money and feasibility” of public spending and that “if these were the only considerations, you are aware that I would advise deferring the start date to 2021”.

Hinds has dismissed the claims, saying: “Naming the first 52 colleges and providers where young people will be able to study the first T levels is an important step forward.”

But The Times says that “only one in six employers has a good understanding of T levels”.

The newspaper reports that business owners, who “will be essential to the success of the new regime”, say that they are not prepared for its launch.

A survey of 81 firms by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers and the City and Guilds Group, a skills development organisation, found that more than half rated their understanding of T levels as middling or poor.

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