Training Today: Level 3 - Ts and 3s

Joanne Parkes
Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Early years Level 3 and T-Level training was already in flux. How has Covid affected their delivery, and what impact are the Government incentives having, asks Joanne Parkes

Bishop Burton College in Beverley, Yorkshire offers the Education and Childcare T-Level
Bishop Burton College in Beverley, Yorkshire offers the Education and Childcare T-Level

The pandemic has been a time of widespread disruption for trainers and students alike, with the early years sector hit with widespread changes to Level 3 qualification routes at the same time as trying to navigate Covid-secure placements when settings are closed or restricted by bubbles, sickness or travel bans.

Along with the arrival of the much-delayed Level 3 standard, there has also been the phasing in of T-Levels. On top of this, the sector is still recovering from the reinstatement of functional skills after a huge drop in candidates caused by the GCSE-only maths and English requirement for Early Years Educator (EYE) courses.

Julie Hyde, director of external and regulatory affairs at training provider CACHE, believes that amid the turmoil, there are signs of positive growth, adding that since the functional skills watershed in 2017, there has been an uplift in completions of Level 3 college-based EYE qualifications, though this was followed last year by a Covid-related dip. Ofqual recorded 13,150 certificates awarded in 2017, rising to 13,700 in 2019, and dropping to 13,000 in 2020 (approximately).

‘Obviously it takes time for the sector to recover that position and we’re starting to see that now. There was a shortage of Level 3 practitioners and the pandemic has exacerbated that situation,’ says Ms Hyde. ‘We know there is a recruitment challenge, which has been compounded by the reduction in the number of apprenticeship starts since the move from framework to standards.

‘It is starting to turn a corner, which is positive for the sector, still accepting that there are a lot of challenges.’

Sophie O’Mara, quality manager at training provider The Childcare Company (partner employers include Bright Horizons and Mama Bear's), says the pandemic has been ‘very difficult as we have been unable to, in many cases, complete our learners’. She reports 73 Level 3 completions since January this year, which is lower than in the same period the year before.

This is despite awarding bodies allowing flexibilities such as reflective accounts, employer observations and expert witness testimonies. ‘This has presented challenges in itself, with many settings unable to complete observations or witness testimonies due to staff shortages,’ she adds.

However, after ‘a difficult few months’, enrolments for Level 3 training are now rising, and Ms O’Mara is hopeful that the sector is bouncing back.

T-LEVEL RECRUITMENT

As the UK sailed towards its second wave of the pandemic last year, the first T-Level students began their newly launched two-year vocational courses. According to CACHE, around 650 students embarked on the Education and Childcare T-Level at 32 centres last September.

A Government incentive of £750 per placement is available to employers, but the potential for workplace learning has been stifled and large chunks of the teaching have been delivered remotely.

Some schools and colleges report enrolling fewer than half the numbers expected, while York College and University College Birmingham have put off launch until September 2021. By contrast, however, Barnsley College has 26 students on the course – ‘about what we were expecting’, says assistant principal for class-based learning, Neil Johnson.

Some 22 students enrolled for Bishop Burton College's recent intake, and according to assistant principal Daniel Brett, the coming year is ‘looking incredibly positive’ with a 17 per cent increase in accepted places as of May 2021.

The college has continued to offer other Level 3 early years courses, but from September 2021 these will be closed for new intakes in favour of the new qualification.

‘Two providers deferred a year, but otherwise it's business as usual,’ Ms Hyde says. ‘The test is when it goes to full roll-out.’

Roll-out is being managed in three waves, and more providers are being approved for each year. The Government is increasing roll-out funding, aiming for this vocational ‘equivalent’ to A-levels to replace all funded technical Level 3 courses by 2023/24. From 2024, T-Levels will be available for delivery by all providers delivering 16-19 study programmes.

PANDEMIC INCENTIVES

Placement hours reduced

Following a hard-won bid by the sector for the childcare T-Level to require 750 work placement hours to ensure student competency, this has been reduced to ‘at least’ 415 hours due to Covid-19.

Ms Hyde stresses that it is not a case of an ‘automatic’ drop to the bare minimum hours, and she says providers are aiming to achieve the full 750 hours over the two years. Also, employers are not reporting concerns that real-life competency will be impacted by reduced hours.

Kids Planet chief executive Clare Roberts says her recruitment process is robust enough to spot gaps in the skillset of applicants and make the call as to how to provide support.

‘It depends on the individual,’ she says. ‘Some people fly through their qualifications. Our responsibility is to be nurturing. Some might need 750 hours to become capable. It's not just about Level 3, it's about the career progression.’

In terms of the practicalities of managing placements, Ms Roberts says students have continued to attend settings and have worked successfully within the restrictions.

‘It might be one person per setting, not a coachload,’ she says. ‘Lateral flow testing has changed our sector – we’d have had a very different January to March had that been rolled out earlier.’

The group, which is top of the Nursery Chains 2021 Ofsted League, with 90 per cent Outstanding settings, is gearing up to provide the T-Level at its training academy from the next academic year.

Ms Hyde believes that any difficulties in securing workplace hours during the first year have a reasonable chance of being ironed out by the end of the second year. ‘It's less of an issue than if it were delivered over one year,’ she says.

Whether the incentive will continue for the 2021/22 intake has yet to be decided by the DfE.

Knowledge-only pathway for Level 3

Another Level 3 incentive is the ‘knowledge-only pathway’, enabling learners who are unable to access a work placement to progress through a version of the Early Years Educator or Early Years Practitioner qualifications.

This can be topped up later if desired, but it is designed to remove barriers to progressing to a degree, which would then provide competency.

Ms Hyde says, ‘We’ve had a positive response from providers who have come back and said to us “Thank you – this will help us with a specific cohort that otherwise wouldn’t have been able to complete”.’

Free Level 3 courses

For those who have not been able to access an apprenticeship or a T-Level, an added lure is the offer of free Level 3 qualifications for over-19-year-olds, from April this year until the end of July.

Previously, adult students aged over 24 needed to self-fund or take out advanced learner loans in sums normally upwards of £2,000. This new offer is part of the Government's Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

Ms O’Mara rates sector awareness of the offer as ‘pretty good’. However, she highlights that funding is mostly going to FE colleges with potential timetabling restrictions that could make arranging placement hours ‘difficult’.

APPRENTICESHIPS

Starts for child development and wellbeing apprenticeships, which include EYE courses, were down on 2020 by 21 per cent nationally as of April this year, according to analysis by CACHE. For the Level 3 EYE apprenticeship only, in 2019/20 there were 6,444 starts, compared with 5,937 in 2020/21 – a decrease of 7.8 per cent.

This echoes the broad picture across apprenticeships under the new standard launched in September 2019, though health and social care bucked the trend with a 2 per cent increase.

Government incentives of £1,000 that were in place for employers hiring apprentices aged 16 to 18 between 1 August 2020 and 30 September 2021 have since been boosted, with another £3,000 available per apprentice of any age taken on from 1 April this year until the end of the same period.

Employers of those aged 16-24 who joined before 31 March this year are eligible for a further £2,000 per apprentice, with £1,500 available for those aged 25 and over.

The Childcare Company's Sophie O’Mara believes these will translate to a better-quality workforce.

‘From the feedback I have seen from managers, there will be thousands who will take this up as a way of growing their own qualified staff when otherwise they may not have been able to afford it,’ she says.

And according to CACHE's Julie Hyde, some providers – that have their own training provision – have taken on extra staff in the form of apprentices in the past year to help ride the storm.

The extra hands on deck ‘has given them the safety net for their staffing levels, where they’ve had issues with staff isolating or being off’, she explains.

Nursery group Mama Bear's is in the middle of a big apprenticeship recruitment drive, but this started pre-pandemic.

The provider is looking to have an average of three apprentices (one per room) in each of its 24 settings – but Vicky Ashbolt, the group's human resources director, says there are currently 15 vacancies.

She adds, ‘There seems to be a gap between the standard required and the academic level of people who are really keen to do the apprenticeship.

‘The number of applicants has halved, but also the number of applicants who would be suitable for the level of the programme has decreased.

‘We’re trying to go for that quality approach, so that you take on the ones that you know really want it and have the capacity to succeed on the course.’

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