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Volume 832: debated on Tuesday 25 July 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of Ofsted’s final report of its T-level thematic review, published on 20 July, specifically its conclusions that (1) in some instances, T-levels provide inappropriate work placements, and (2) many T-level students drop out after the first year.

My Lords, T-levels are new, challenging qualifications, and we continue to offer extensive support for their implementation. We want every T-level student to receive outstanding vocational education. We commissioned Ofsted to help us identify what further areas for improvement might be needed. We welcome its report and are already taking action, including a £12 million employer support fund and bespoke workforce support to help address concerns around work placements and student continuity.

I thank the Minister for that response, but the Ofsted T-level review was highly critical, identifying what it termed a “range of shortcomings”. I hope this will lead to them being resolved. Until that happens, another issue raised in the report is of real urgency. Ofsted called for a review of the Government’s wider level 3 reforms, including the defunding of most BTECs by 2025. It points to the impact of that on disadvantaged young people. That is a point that noble Lords across your Lordships’ House have made on numerous occasions, both during the passage of the skills Act and since then. On each occasion, the Minister dismissed our fears as scaremongering. Now that Ofsted has recommended it, will she and her Ministers revisit the question of the impact of defunding alternate pathways to T-levels on young people?

The Government do not have any plans to revisit the defunding of those other pathways. We are confident in the quality of T-levels and the employability that they offer students. Our job is to make them work at the level of the best institutions that have been delivering them, which the noble Lord will have seen referred to in the Ofsted report. We will make sure we offer those opportunities particularly to the young people to whom he refers.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that so many students are dropping T-levels because they have been misled? They thought they were going to study a technical curriculum, but the curriculums are 75% academic and 25% technical—that is absurd. In the review she is undertaking, will she ensure that the curriculums for engineering, construction and digital skills are at least 40% technical, otherwise students will not study them? That means you will have fewer technicians for the economy, which desperately needs more.

As my noble friend knows, the qualifications were designed very closely with employers. The content of the curriculum reflects what employers, working with the department and colleges, told us that they needed. I remind the House that, historically, we have had over 200 qualifications in engineering and over 200 in building and construction. There has been a complicated, unclear landscape. We will now have a clear and high quality one.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the problems with these courses. There are virtually no problems that were not predicted. Could the Minister tell us what we are doing about careers advice for the young people taking these qualifications? Where there are courses which have failed—if everybody fails on the second year, as is pointed out in the report, they have failed—will the careers advice in the local area reflect this, so that those courses can die if they are not delivering?

I do not recognise the examples the noble Lord referred to. When I talk to students who have done T-levels, they are evangelical about the value it has brought them and proud of their achievements and the quality of what they have learned. In relation to careers advice, in spring this year we made available grants of up to £10,000 per provider to boost careers guidance in schools and colleges, so all students have a good understanding of T-levels and their benefits.

My Lords, what are the Government doing to encourage more small and medium-sized enterprises to offer T-level work placements, given that in many parts of the country placements in larger businesses may not be easily available and SMEs play a key role in many vital sectors of the economy, including the creative sector?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that we need a range of choices of placements, and that must include small and medium-sized enterprises. We launched recently an employer support fund, which will pay for legitimate costs employers incur in hosting placements. We believe that will be of particular value to small and medium-sized enterprises.

My Lords, I am slightly shocked that the Minister does not seem to be taking seriously the very serious criticisms included in the Ofsted report about T-levels—which, I have to say, my noble friend Lord Watson and other noble Lords predicted when the House discussed the establishment of T-levels. There is no satisfaction in being right, because this concerns the lives, futures and aspirations of a cohort of young people who have been badly served by T-levels, many of whom have dropped out. Has the department tracked these youngsters? What has happened to them, and have they been offered alternative options?

I will make a couple of points. I think the data that the noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Addington, referred to on drop-outs refers to the T-level transition programme—we are doing a lot of work to strengthen and improve this, for the reasons both noble Lords referred to—rather than T-levels themselves. In the interests of fairness and accuracy, noble Lords have understandably reflected some of the areas for improvement highlighted by Ofsted, but I will quote the report:

“At their best, T levels provide an opportunity to combine high-quality study of theory with excellent development of practical skills”.

My Lords, your Lordships’ House had a special Select Committee on this area and found that the complication for young people not going on to A-levels was one of the issues. T-levels are a simple way to put technical qualifications on a par with the academic route of A-levels. Could my noble friend the Minister please outline whether there are specific career guidance initiatives to ensure that children in a school which is offering only A-levels and has its own sixth form are made aware of T-levels? Obviously, that may mean they leave and go to a different institution.

My noble friend makes a good point. As I referred to, we are making available grants of up to £10,000 per provider to boost careers guidance in schools and colleges, so that every child is aware of the potential of T-levels. Of course, in the skills Act, the Baker clause, from my noble friend Lord Baker, means that students are getting more frequent careers input throughout their time in secondary school.

My Lords, I understand that finding suitable placements, even after Covid, is a particular barrier to increasing the number of T-levels available from providers. Some employers are poorly informed about the content and structure of T-levels. Can the Minister tell me what steps the department is taking to improve this situation?

We are investing in direct support for employers, including through the delivery of an employer support package which offers online guidance, workshops and hands-on support to employers. We have a T-level employer ambassador network, and I mentioned the employer support fund already. Obviously, we have made a very significant investment, both in capital and capacity and delivery, to allow T-levels to be delivered at the scale we need.

My Lords, the Ofsted report also refers to some young people who started in the first tranche of T-levels expecting that they would assist them in gaining access to university only to find that, in the case of their course, that was not possible. Can the Minister say how many universities accept T-levels for access? What steps are the Government taking to increase that number?

There are relatively few T-levels where students have completed both years, given the timing of their introduction. Currently, 136 higher education providers have indicated that they will accept T-levels, including the vast majority of Russell group universities.

My Lords, I congratulate the Government on introducing T-levels, which are, to judge from local reaction, a very successful, solidly academic qualification. We have considerable worry that there will be many students who will not be up to taking them who are currently served by BTECs. I urge my noble friend to revisit that, because these are students who we should not be letting down.

We are absolutely committed to those students. I remind the House that the current applied general qualifications produce very mixed outcomes indeed. The point my noble friend makes is valid, and, of course, by increasing the quality of the offer at level 3 we also need to reform qualifications at level 2, level 1 and entry level, to make sure that we equip students to progress to the highest level to which they aspire. With that, I also wish the House a very happy and peaceful recess.