Digital T Levels at a fork in the road

Two years into the flagship T Level programme would normally be an ideal time to review, take stock, and plot a clear route forward.

When those two years coincided with a world-wide pandemic that massively impacted on face-to-face teaching, never mind the practicalities of lengthy work experience placements, the ‘big picture’ is much harder to clarify.

This article is an effort to see through the mist to the way ahead for digital T Levels as they increasingly become the focus of post-16 technical study.

England’s Department for Education has built great expectations for the digital T Level to provide a skilled workforce in high-growth areas including web development, games design, data analysis and IT support. With employers in these fields pointing to skills gaps, the need for such a qualification is obvious. Two females working at a computer

In IT, however, existing qualifications such as Level 3 Diplomas and BTECs have a long and successful history, with teaching firmly embedded in many colleges and other post-16 institutions.

The switch to T Levels has been met with caution but appears to be gathering pace as the threat to end some established IT applied courses becomes more real. The providers that have jumped on board the T Level steam train offer a range of reflections.

Many express satisfaction with the rigour and modernity of the specifications for the three digital T Levels: Digital Production, Design and Development; Digital Business Services; and Digital Support Services.

The investment in modernising teaching facilities is broadly welcomed, and staff seem to enjoy teaching in them. There have been challenges too, mainly related to the extended work placement of around 45 days.

This aspect of the qualification was eyed nervously from the outset by anyone with responsibility for arranging work experience placements, acknowledging how much demand this would place on even the most supportive employer.

While ministers claim that 90% of the first cohort of 1,300 students found a placement, some with ‘virtual’ components, there must surely be some adaptation to ensure that all students benefit.

Allowing more than two employers to share the placement period, or changing expectations around attendance and supervision, are two of the changes requested by some providers in the first wave. There are calls for a review of the employer project which, say some, repeats aspects of the course content and creates unnecessary time pressures.

These teething issues ought to be expected and all are solvable if the will is there. A more significant barrier to the success of T Levels is a lack of understanding of technical qualifications among employers whose support is critical to this learning route.

Providers need time and support to engage with local employers – to advocate for the new qualification and increase its perceived value; and to collaborate on curriculum design, industry placements and project briefs.

The up-to-date subject knowledge that employers can provide, while highlighting rewarding local careers, are part of a partnership package that could make T Levels a massive success. If digital apprenticeships, HE qualifications, and employer training programmes become filled with diverse, skilled and informed young people, then that success will be worthy of celebration.

For resources, CPD and connections to STEM professionals to support with digital T Levels, you can visit the STEM Learning website at www.stem.org.uk/QADT

By Dave Gibbs, Senior subject specialist computing & technology at STEM Learning