Education Committee blasts ‘disappointing’ Govt response to T Levels report
5 July 2023
The Education Committee has today expressed disappointment at the Government’s response to its report the future of post-16 qualifications, which called on ministers to review overall FE funding and pause its withdrawal of technical qualifications that are due to the replaced by T Levels.
The Applied General Qualifications (AGQs) are being defunded by the Department for Education (DfE) after it cited their poor record of meeting industry needs and enabling graduates to gain jobs in related subjects.
AGQs, which include BTECs and other qualifications, are being replaced by T Levels – the technical alternative to A Levels that launched in September 2019. They are two-year courses, broadly equivalent to three A Levels, that include a nine-week industry placement. Up to 250,000 industry placements a year may be needed once they are fully rolled out.
In its report, the cross-party Committee urged DfE to “place a moratorium” on defunding AGQs due to problems with T Levels that were raised by expert witnesses during its inquiry. They include:
- Concerns that too few young people and employers are aware of T Levels. Research from 2021 suggested the majority of young people hadn’t heard of T Levels, while employers’ interest in providing T Level work placements fell between 2019-2021, from 36% to 30%.
- Around one-fifth of the first T Levels cohort dropped out as they proved challenging for students with lower academic attainment or who have SEND. DfE created a one-year Transition Programme designed to make the qualification more accessible, but just 14% of its first cohort progressed to a T Level.
- A lack of data to show how effective T Levels are at supporting student progression into skilled employment, apprenticeships and higher education.
- Many universities aren’t accepting T Levels alone for undergraduate degrees and are additionally requiring relevant A Levels.
The Committee said AGQs “should only be withdrawn as and when there is a robust evidence base proving that T Levels are demonstrably more effective in preparing students for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility”.
The ministers’ response failed to address the lack of evidence that T Levels have yet been proven superior to BTECs and other AGQs in this regard, but said “our reforms will increase outcomes for learners and build a strong pipeline of skills for the future”.
MPs said the ability of businesses to offer sufficient high-quality industry placements, and a clear track record of T Level success as well as evidenced improvement in equalities outcomes, should be prerequisites to scrapping further AGQs on basis of ‘overlap’ with T Levels.
The Government’s response said 92% of the first T Levels cohort achieved a pass, but it failed to address the fact that one-fifth of starters dropped out. It said the earliest point the Government will remove funding for AGQs that overlap with T Levels will be August 2024. It said the reforms “are happening in a gradual, phased way… [with] regular discussions with stakeholders to listen to their concerns”.
The Committee also said DfE should “undertake a wholesale review of 16–19 funding, including offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students” in order to prevent a further narrowing of 16–19 education.
The Department did not directly address this point. It said it had increased funding for 16-19 education by £125m for 2023/24, and outlined how it uses its 16-19 Bursary. It added: “We will continue to keep 16-19 funding under review, and appreciate it needs to remain fair, transparent and appropriate”.
A fourth key recommendation was for DfE to review its Transition Programme and determine why so few learners progressed to T Levels. “We would expect an effectively functioning Transition Programme to support at least half of learners to progress to the full T Level,” the Committee’s report said.
DfE said it has “strengthened the programme”, informed by evidence from the first year and developed national technical content for greater consistency from September 2022. It said it will “work with providers to better understand early progression outcomes and how more learners can be supported onto T Levels as the Programme is rolled out more widely”.
Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said:
“The Government’s response to our detailed and strongly evidenced recommendations was disappointing and gives the impression of prioritising saving face over ensuring its reforms are carried out in the interests of young people. The committee has made constructive suggestions and stands by them to ensure that our post 16 qualifications deliver for as many young people as possible.”
“Whilst we welcome the ambition of having a higher value vocational qualification for some, we remain concerned that T Levels may not adequately fill the void that hastily withdrawing AGQs may create, and that there is insufficient evidence that T Levels will be an achievable option for swathes of young people who do not achieve the top grades at GCSE, or who have SEND. Failing to take this into account runs the risk of exacerbating existing inequalities.
“The Government also needs to face up to the fact that funding for 16-19 further education has been eroded away over a long period and that the increases in recent years only make up part of that. That’s why we called for a wholesale review of funding for this sector, including more targeted support for disadvantaged students which would go a long way towards helping those who we fear may otherwise struggle to keep up their studies in the years ahead.”