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Volume 799: debated on Tuesday 1 October 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with Russell Group universities about whether they will accept T-levels as entry qualifications for undergraduate degrees.

My Lords, it is anticipated that 16 year-olds who undertake the new T-levels will mostly then go on to work. However, Her Majesty’s Government also expect that T-levels will be acceptable as entry requirements to our most selective universities. I assure the noble Baroness that this issue was on the agenda at the last meeting of the higher education advisory group in the department in May. She will be aware that the group includes Russell group universities, such as Exeter, Southampton and Oxford, as well as the chair of the Russell group qualifications network. The department is also meeting one-on-one with individual universities and their admissions officers, but expects that formal admissions decisions will be made once the detailed content of T-levels is available in spring next year.

I welcome the noble Baroness to her appointment and look forward to working with her. T-levels were supposed to do all the things that well-established and highly respected BTEC and City & Guilds qualifications were apparently failing to do in respect of parity of esteem between academic and work-based qualifications; I declare an interest as a vice-president of City & Guilds. To bridge this divide, T-levels need recognition from universities. What input did universities have in the development of T-levels, and what are the Government doing to raise the profile of all suitable work-based qualifications as fulfilling entry requirements in order to expand diversity?

The noble Baroness is correct that this is a moment where we can raise the parity of esteem. The selection of the name “T-level” enables us to raise the consciousness of there being parity with A-levels; that it is easily understandable. Industry has been involved intimately in developing the curriculum of these qualifications, which will begin in September 2020. Universities have been allowed to see the development and the progress of the content and to comment on it. We are determined to ensure that where it is relevant for a related degree, a T-level will be appropriate. However, some of the new T-levels—for instance, in design—will not be acceptable for English literature at Oxford. They will be specific to related qualifications.

My Lords, I also welcome the noble Baroness to her new post and her first Question as an Education Whip. Notwithstanding her Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Garden, before universities decide whether they will accept T-levels as entry qualifications, the Government need to stop sending mixed messages and clearly explain their purpose. I am aware that they are not yet fully developed, but until then there is clear doubt, which was to some extent compounded when recently the post of Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills was abolished. That sends out the wrong messages. The £120 million announced yesterday by the Secretary of State, without consulting the sector, has also wrong-footed a number of people. Can the Minister say where she sees T-levels fitting into the new education landscape apparently envisaged by the Secretary of State?

The new T-levels are part of the overall reform. It has been clear to noble Lords on all sides of the House that 16 year-olds who do not want to follow the traditional path into university have to make very complicated decisions. Outside of A-levels and GCSEs, there are more than 12,000 different qualifications to choose from. T-levels are part of bringing some crystallisation and clarity to the process. That is why there are a number of reviews going on, particularly into all post-16 qualifications. The Government are aware that some of those qualifications, such as BTECs, are well respected in industry. Therefore, there must be a two-stage review to make sure that, where qualifications overlap T-levels and we have decided not to fund them, it is done in consultation with business. As the Sainsbury panel made clear, it is high time that the 16 year-olds who are not going to follow the traditional path have a clear choice—A-levels or T-levels and apprenticeships.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Baroness to her new role. Will the Government take this opportunity to look at special educational needs in relation to T-levels? The guidance published last year said that the example of apprenticeships would be followed for English and maths qualifications for groups such as dyslexics. This is still a confused area and there are complaints about it. The academic way is clearer cut and more straightforward. Can the Government please clarify the situation and make sure that everybody involved knows what they are doing? I remind the House of my declared interests.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord and am aware of his interest in this area. I will have to check but there is a £60 million capacity fund, and some of that money will enable students to do the industry placement. There are also plans for a transitional programme at 16, to enable students who need an extra year in order to succeed to do a T-level over three years. However, I will write to him specifically about how those with special educational needs, and particularly those with an education, health and care plan, will be incorporated into the new T-levels.

My Lords, is it not great news that the new Secretary of State has announced more emphasis on further education and on encouraging people to get qualifications other than the traditional three-year degree? Should the House not welcome this change of emphasis and the resources that have been put into it, of which T-levels are a part?

I am grateful to my noble friend. Yes, it is about time that technical education in this country—outlined, I believe, by the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, as one of the three top priorities that the Government should look at—finally got the parity of esteem that it deserves. The number of people studying for levels 4 and 5 qualifications in this country is woeful. It affects our productivity and, most of all, as the noble Baroness, Lady Corston, is aware, it affects the social mobility of many of our young people. I read with interest the response to the Augar report in your Lordships’ House. This area is often referred to as the Cinderella of the education sector. I look forward to all noble Lords using all their pressure to put ideas forward, because I think that Cinderella is about to go to the ball.