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Where did the idea of T Levels come from?

The principle of T Levels came about from the Sainsbury Review, led by Lord Sainsbury and a panel set up to advised Ministers on how technical education can be improved, focusing on simplifying the currently over-complex system.  Here’s a quick look at the timeline…


So what exactly are T Levels?

T Levels are set to be the technical alternative to A Levels – but what exactly are they?

First let’s be clear that they are not “Tech Levels” which not that long ago were the “technical alternative to A levels” and include many of the component parts of the new T Levels. (Confused already? Stay with it….)

T Levels are a classroom based technical study programme, in which a learner acquires the skills, knowledge and behaviours needed to secure a job when they complete the T level.

Of course say that to an employer and their response will be – isn’t that an apprenticeship?

T Levels are a bit different in that they are two year college based study with a mandatory three month work place with an appropriate employer. They could also lead to further technical training.

In a sense, they are a mix of both A Levels and Technical education.

Say that to a manufacturing employer and they ask – isn’t that what used to be a Diploma?

Each T level programme, on average, will take 1,800 hours to deliver over two years. Each programme will consist of five components:

  • a new technical qualification designed for each T level;
  • a 3 month work placement;
  • maths, English and digital requirements;
  • any other occupation-specific requirements set out by the relevant T level panel; and
  • any further employability, enrichment and pastoral requirements.

Routes, pathways, specialisms, oh my!

Now this is when it gets slightly complicated and we’re trying to work out exactly how this work so stay with us….

  • A learner will choose 1 of 15 possible “Routes” one of which is Manufacturing and Engineering
  • There are then “Pathways” within each route that a learner can choose, for example Manufacturing Processes
  • And then within pathways are “Specialisms”

The idea behind taking this “routed” approach is for young people to be able to see a clear path towards the occupation of their choice. If I decide then I want to be a Welder, I would know which Route, Pathway and Specialisms to take to get there. That’s the idea anyway.

What does the learner achieve at the end?

In short a T Level.

Slightly lengthier explanation is that it will signal the student has the occupationally relevant competences, knowledge, skills and behaviours needed to succeed in a job role as well as the numeracy, literacy, digital and wider transferable skills needed for their chosen route (so you’ve got there the broad range of skills and then the specialist skills).

And the learner will get a certificate that the DfE is currently suggesting will look like this:


What do manufacturers think about T levels?

Driving up the quality and take up of technical education, a work placement, skills and competences to do a job, numeracy, literacy and digital skills tick all boxes for employers so the commitment from Government to do something in this area from industry is generally supported.

Dig into the detail and that’s when you invite the questions. Including those above – what’s the difference between a T Level and an Apprenticeship? Is this just the engineering diploma in disguise?

Of the companies we have spoken to T levels about, some, especially smaller sized companies who perhaps don’t take on cohorts of apprentices each year see value in the new programme. With the majority of learning happening in college then this takes the pressure off time spend training in the company.

Employers want candidates with work experience and the mandatory 3 month work experience placement with an appropriate employer delivers on what. Employers could also use the work experience placement as an opportunity to recruit potential employees and apprentices of the future. Of course, delivering a work placement in house isn’t always easy (see things we think the T level programme needs to think about).

There are also companies that question the value of recruiting a learner who has gained a T level vs a learner who has undertaken an apprenticeship. Can you really fit what might otherwise been a 4 year engineering apprenticeship into a 2 year T level programme? Or are we comparing apples with oranges? Not all manufacturers think there is a significant difference yet. When we’ve attempting to map out the differences, we came up with this:



What this shows is that T Levels are almost a halfway house between A Levels and Apprenticeships. They combine some elements that are academic, for example the ‘core component’ of English, maths and digital skills, alongside more technical components like the work placements and the specialism.

Staying positive – making T levels work

An apprenticeship isn’t for every young person at 16 (who does not want to pursue an academic route) so there is great value in getting technical education at Key Stage 5 right and making it of value to both learners and employers.

While the policy is still in development with a consultation currently open, we have some immediate thoughts on how to get it right:

  • Keep it simple – including on grading. The consultation currently suggests grading the “core” element i.e. numeracy, literacy and digital as A* to E and the “specialism” or the vocational learning element will be a pass, merit or distinction. Two grades? Really?
  • Allow flexibility with work placements – a three month placement in an employer may be difficult for an employer, particularly, SMEs, so allow flexibility for time spent on and off with the employer and allowing learners to undertake project work too. Employers are going to need some guidance too – so that needs to be employer friendly. And we need to make the process with as little bureaucracy as possible…. 
  • Make it clear what the destination for a learner who has attained a T Level will be – going into permanent employment i.e. becoming a welder, or moving onto an apprenticeship? It’s still not clear whether T levels are a stepping stone to further learning or a move directly into employment.
  • Balance the breadth and specialism right – routes, pathways, specialisms, it’s all quite confusing but there is a balance to get right by ensuring a learner has a breadth of transferable skills, which they’ll need to be able to move around job roles, sectors and industries and have a specialist set of skills that will allow the learner to then undertake the job that the T Level will essentially tell them they can do.
  • Language – understanding T Levels and their value will be vital to ensuring that employers are willing and able to participate. To do this DfE and IFA must keep the language simple and clear. It is not hard to get muddled up between pathways, routes and specialism so simplifying the language and showing the T Level journey will be integral to its success.



The DfE are currently consulting on implementing the T level programme and EEF will be responding so please do email us your views. And we’re not just looking at this from a policy perspective, EEF’s Director of Apprentices & Skills Peter Winebloom is the Chair of the T Level for Manufacturing Processes – so as ever, EEF is at the heart of these fundamental reforms.