T-Levels: a new generation of vocational learners

Stewart Watts, VP EMEA at D2L, discusses the new T-Levels and the road ahead for the new alternative qualification to higher education

In August, millions of students across the country received their exam results. Amongst these were the 1,029 students who received their T-Levels, the first cohort to undertake the new qualification. T-Levels were introduced as an alternative to higher education and part of the UK government’s wider effort to address the ongoing talent shortage across multiple industries.

The qualifications have been designed to develop technical skill sets by combining academia with industry placements, to ensure students are fully prepared when they enter the workplace.

New milestones in level three qualification reform

The two-year courses launched for the first time in September 2020 and, so far, have been delivered by 44 colleges and schools across the country. There is a selection of subjects available, including construction, business management, digital courses and engineering; however, the government is looking to gradually expand course options, given the success of this year. Compared to traditional A-Levels, T-Levels grant students the opportunity to put their skills into practice in the real world, with approximately 315 hours designated to industry placements.

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Skills development through vocational programmes

A recent report by Pearson Business School found that nearly a fifth of graduates are not “workplace ready”, with many lacking the crucial skills required for today’s workforce and business challenges. Vocational qualifications are a step in the right direction, as there is clearly a disconnect between the skills required in the workplace and those that are currently taught and honed in higher and further education.

T-Levels grant students the opportunity to put their skills into practice in the real world

To close this gap, the way in which we value, deliver and measure learning needs to change, especially if we are looking to address the ongoing recruitment challenges. The skills challenge needs to be addressed early on from within education, and young people must be equipped with the right skills before they enter the workplace. However, reforming an entire education system will take time and needs to be approached carefully.

The digital skills challenge is far more complex

According to a joint UK jobs report conducted by KPMG and the Recruitment and Employment Confederation, it was found that candidate numbers for job vacancies in the tech industry are at an all-time low. In fact, 12 million people are currently under-skilled for entry-level jobs. T-Levels provide an opportunity to tackle the talent deficit; however, there need to be stronger partnerships between businesses and education providers to ensure future courses are designed with current challenges in mind. It is mutually beneficial for both parties and is the only way to establish a steady pipeline of future talent for all industries.

According to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education, an impressive 92% of students achieved a pass or above across the entire T-Level cohort. However, digital courses proved far more challenging with only 25.9% of 340 students achieving higher grades and 10% not completing their full course.

Digital skills are difficult to nurture, and even harder to assess. As such, there is still a way to go when it comes to equipping students with the digital know-how required for today’s workforce. As part of this, student engagement and course delivery should be reviewed.

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The road ahead for T-Levels

It is great to see the relationship between the business world and education becoming more intertwined, following the introduction of T-Levels. This should continue to develop, and industry experts should be involved in course design, with regular updates to account for evolving business challenges.

Working with industry, the education sector can ensure desirable skills are embedded within its curriculum and delivered across all courses. Similarly, organisations can offer insight into how to design programmes that cater to lifelong learners. That way, employers can incorporate specific skills that are tailored to individual job roles.

Reforming an entire education system will take time and needs to be approached carefully

An effective blended learning strategy will be important. This can be achieved using programmatic learning techniques – continuous, action-based learning programmes that allow students to test the knowledge that they learn in the classroom in the real world. Rather than targeting small skills in a one-off session, this framework is specifically designed to target more complex competences that are often much harder to teach.

This also allows a personalised learning experience for students and helps them to understand how a particular skill will relate to the business they may have a placement in. For this to be effective, it must span the entire two years that students are taking their T-Levels – as opposed to traditional work experience that may only last a week. The aim is to develop knowledge and expertise over time, exposing the learner to comprehensive information through a variety of content types. Over this period, student progress should be measured in accordance with specific metrics and reviewed on a regular basis via data analytics.

Data analytics can help educators identify where students are struggling. Getting an accurate reflection of the overall picture calls for investment in technology that can deliver continuous learning analytics. Teachers can see students’ average grades easily, but analysis of access information, utilisation of revision materials and other data points can give a holistic view of how students are progressing in both their classroom teaching and on their industry placements. This allows for early intervention, as team mentors will be able to step in and assist struggling students in real time.

Designing courses in this way takes time. Governments, businesses and educational institutions will have to be patient and constantly review their programmes to ensure student engagement is maximised and that classes adequately prepare students for the world of work. This will only be achieved as schools and businesses continue to work more closely, and identify new ways that they can work together and bring these courses to life.

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