When the arrival of a new post-16 qualification was announced in 2017 by then-chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, it was hoped that it would make students more ready to enter the workplace.
T-levels (the T stands for technical) are intended to attract people into trades and professions by giving them vocational training and, crucially, industry experience. Students study for one T-level which takes two years to complete.
When thinking about how to become a surveyor there are now 20 courses to choose from, three of which are within the built environment envelope: Building Services Engineering for Construction; Onsite Construction; and, of most interest to RICS members, Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction (DSP), the only one of the three to be offered from the outset in 2020.
“My view is that the T-level hits a real sweet spot,” says Bruce Boughton, people development manager at Lovell Partnerships, and one of the Department for Education’s (DfE) T-level ambassadors. “It’s a way of getting academic students who think there are other, more exciting sectors out there [into those industries].”
What sets T-levels apart from other school- and college-based courses is a requirement for 45 days of industry work experience. This means that DSP students should have some familiarity with the scope of work if they decide to carry on with their studies to become, say, chartered surveyors.
Mark Andrews, vice principal of North Kent College which started to offer T-levels this academic year, says that four of the 12 students studying DSP in his department came from local grammar schools where they might have been expected to take A-levels and aim for a Russell Group university. “The T-levels help students who have a specific interest in the construction sector,” he says. “I’d expect those who do well on their placements to be taken on by their companies for degree apprenticeships.”
This try-before-you-buy approach works both ways: employers can see if any of their student placements are suitable for a job or apprenticeship offer; the students get to see if the career is as appealing as they first thought by spending time in the workplace.
“Students are much more likely to stick with [further training] if they’ve done a T-level as they already have some experience of the sector,” says Boughton. “We don’t call the 45 days-placement work experience, it’s more meaningful than that.”
He has a point: work experience does bring to mind the image of bored teenagers being tasked with photocopying or making tea. But the industry component is a considerable commitment for both students and the workplace-provider. The question of how to provide meaningful work for teenagers, especially in the construction sector, is one that has puzzled some within the industry.
“There’s an issue that if you’re 16 or 17, being let loose on a building site is not straightforward,” says Terry Watts of the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust. “The health and safety legislation and HR implications will be really tricky but I assume work arounds have been sorted out. If not, I worry that only the biggest companies will be able to host work placements and they only make up a fraction of the sector that consists of 450,000 small companies. Large companies aren’t always that representative of employers but the smaller firms will find it hard to engage.”
It is possible that the work placement element of T-levels could end up causing a bottleneck for education providers. At the Thomas Telford UTC where Boughton is a governor, industry placements are sourced before the course is offered, so if only six are found, only six students can study for the T-level.
Andrews says provisions in the Social Value Act, which places an obligation on any company bidding for public contracts to deliver engagement with the community, education etc, has helped with sourcing industry placements. As well as his role at North Kent College, he is involved with the CBE Education Advisory Committee (which is chaired by Boughton) and which has been liaising with firms in the built environment sector to provide placements for T-level students as well as broadening industry networks for colleges wishing to offer T-levels.
“Students are much more likely to stick with further training if they’ve done a T-level as they already have some experience of the sector” Bruce Boughton, people development manager, Lovell
It’s worth pointing out, however, that only 1,029 students completed T-levels in all the offered disciplines in 2022, compared to almost 300,000 for traditional A-level courses. Currently, Watts says that “very few parents and teachers know about T-levels” and Andrews agrees that poorly-targeted marketing from the DfE has meant that information is not getting through.
“We will need to expand the number of students our department takes on but,” he concedes, “if the scheme were to be scaled up, then there would be a struggle to find placements.”
Watts also laments the emphasis that T-levels place on academic ability rather than a more practical approach. “It is a good idea to have a high-quality built environment qualification in schools and colleges – we do need a high-skilled economy. But many of the skills we need are practical, problem-solving skills so it is vitally important that we don’t just value academic learning and discourage or disenfranchise everyone else. “
“We do need a high-skilled economy. But many of the skills we need are practical, problem-solving skills so it is vitally important that we don’t just value academic learning and discourage or disenfranchise everyone else” Terry Watts, CEO of Chartered Surveyor Training Trust
“I knew I didn’t want to continue with the usual school subjects or a typical girls’ thing like hairdressing,” says Leah Hickman who has just completed her DSP T-level. “The industry placement part of T-levels was what appealed to me the most. It was set in stone that the placement had to be beneficial to the students.”
Leah was part of the first cohort to go through the T-level programme and she has excelled: she received a distinction and is now an apprentice QS at Balfour Beatty, the firm at which she did her placement. Although she knew very little about the construction sector while she was at school, family members encouraged her to research it and she was drawn to quantity surveying. “I didn’t really know what a quantity surveyor was but when I looked into it, there was so much more to the job than I first thought.”
During her placement, she had the chance to work in four different departments on projects as important as HS2. “I hated the engineering rotation,” she says. “It made it clear to me that I wanted to focus on quantity surveying.”
Leah is entirely positive about her T-level choice. Her course grade and industry experience led to her being offered a job in the sector plus an apprenticeship with a rival firm as well as Balfour Beatty. She is now splitting her week between working and studying with her employer paying her university fees. “I’m really interested in working in the commercial sector,” she says, “and I like being in an industry that has been traditionally male.”
Leah Hickman. Photography by Michael Leckie.