TLPD TRIP: Cirencester College

A case study from the Teacher Regional Improvement Project (TRIP) led by Cirencester College in partnership with Shrewsbury College, Queen Mary’s College and Peter Symonds College.

The TRIP was part of the first phase of the T Level Professional Development (TLPD) offer, which enabled T Level providers to participate in sector-led, collaborative action research projects.

Project aims

  • To produce a measuring tool for surveying staff
  • To quantify and review current skill and confidence levels of teaching staff across all four Colleges to inform training needs
  • To engage directly with employers to understand where deficits in skills exist or discrepancies occur between current practice and industry requirements, together with surveying the understanding of T Levels generally within the education landscape
  • To engage with recent employees (9-12 months in post) and identify the factors that, if they had known them when they started, would have been most beneficial when starting work
  • To produce a guide for employers
  • To produce a guide for those new to work.

Project overview

As a research group we recognised that both employers, students and staff would need to build on their knowledge to understand the new T Levels. We also recognised that T Levels require a special approach, based on competencies as well as understanding, for them to work effectively. This would require supporting employers so they could see the value of the new qualifications and understand where they fit within the education landscape and supporting learners who would be entering the professional workplace for the first time. We also wanted to survey our staff to fully appreciate the concerns they may have in launching new qualifications, so they could be supported appropriately. The context of vocational teachers moving from modular courses, to two-year linear courses with end point assessment, was also in our minds when considering the support that teachers would require.

The project quantified and reviewed current skill and confidence levels of teaching staff across all four Colleges in relation to their existing appreciation of teaching and learning practice, and their understanding of the relationships between their current levels of expertise and modern industry practice. This directly informed staff training and development for the duration of the project.

The project also engaged directly with employers and new employees to discover the levels of support recognised by both as essential. This was conducted by survey packages which produced interesting and valuable results (see below). The Colleges in the partnership then collaborated to write, design and produce materials to support employers and new employees.

What did the project providers do?

The first phase of the project involved surveying teaching staff, employers and new employees (essentially apprentices who had completed their first year in the workplace).

Each College identified staff who would most likely be teaching on T Levels during the first phase of release (both Shrewsbury and Queen Mary’s are not in Phase One delivery). The measurement tool revolved around a radar chart covering aspects of teaching and learning from content awareness and formative assessment understanding, to skills development and delivery. This was completed by 11 staff about to embark on T Level delivery. The radar chart then required identified problem areas to be further explored with reflective analysis to clearly identify particular high impact areas to improve. Data from the radar surveys was then collated between the four colleges and common themes identified together with high confidence and best practice examples too. This informed staff development decisions in each College. The survey tool was seen as helpful, reflective and constructive by both staff and managers.

A selection of some 80 employers across the four Colleges were written to with a comprehensive survey designed to identify their levels of T Level understanding so that we could subsequently design a suitable support resource to help them. 45 employers responded from a variety of businesses ranging from large scale NHS trusts to SMEs working out of small industrial units. We believe the response rate is very favourable for such a survey (results discussed below).

14 new employees were surveyed across the collaborative group from within a range of employment settings. All responded enthusiastically with a variety of positive and helpful guidance notes and advice for those about to enter the workplace.

In addition, this TRIP has informed several wider meetings, promotions and marketing events as the national T Level awareness has grown and each of the Colleges within the group has become more embedded in the overall thrust of T Level roll-out. An approximation of 800 further individuals to have become aware of T Levels as a result is not unreasonable at this stage, and that is before any of the actual product materials have been produced and released officially.

Positive outcomes and expected impact

The project has had a positive impact and has achieved on a number of levels. Firstly, the collaborative approach has brought our Colleges together and enabled staff to integrate, share and understand each other’s approaches. The now established network will prove extremely useful in the coming years as we all roll-out T Level programmes.

Secondly, we now have more reflective staff who genuinely understand their strengths and weaknesses. Staff have identified the most effective areas to develop that will have the greatest positive impact on their teaching, learners, and consequently quality of placement for employers. This greater understanding has helped staff direct their training and take better advantage of the ever-growing suite of T Level training packages available from ETF. As a result, I believe we have a more confident workforce heading into the new T Level landscape and this will directly benefit learners.

The project has not only enabled closer relationships with collaborative colleges but also gains in a greater understanding of the industry sectors within which our students aspire to work. This closer relationship with industry will benefit students who will have not only direct and up-to-date knowledge and experience of the workplace, but also staff who have a closer relationship with their placement employers.

With particular regard to teachers, there were spreads of confidence levels between teachers with most feeling confident in traditional teaching tropes such as formative assessment methods they will use and in how to differentiate their delivery. There was a natural anxiety prior to specification release as weighting of content and assessment methods were not fully understood. Understanding the modern workplace was an interesting concern of staff. Generally, it will be vocational teachers who will be picking up T Level teaching, and though many of these have industry experience, for most this would have not been from recent years. In so many areas advances and changes in practice have taken place, together with huge developments in the application of technology, and this is where gaps in experience appeared. Subsequent Industry Insight applications took place as a result, and individual assessments and opportunities for scholarly activity are planned. Without question, the survey vehicle provided a useful, reflective and informative assessment of staff confidence and needs, to which we were then able to respond. Finally, staff indicated some lack of confidence over designing a new qualification from scratch, approaches to take, how to plan for end point assessment and how to make good use of work placement. All of these factors have been incorporated into our second TRIP project.

The impact of T Levels on employers surveyed was fascinating. It would appear that national promotion and advertising had a very limited effect. From our 45 employers across four regions of the Midlands and South West, we found that 82% do not know what T Levels are or have heard the name but know nothing about them. Of those that have heard of T Levels, 87% of employers do not know what the structure of a T Level is, and 80% have no idea what the role of business has in T Levels or what they may be expected to do.

This rather unnerving response made us focus on employers and their general understanding of the education landscape as a whole. It appears that most would typically remember what they did (a manager aged in their late 40’s involved in recruiting today would have done C.S.E’s or ‘O’ Levels). Or if they have children, they typically have a basic idea of what they are doing (usually limited to recognising there is a difference between A Levels or ‘Vocational’).

73% of employers would not class their understanding of types of qualifications generally as high and 78% of employers have no idea how T Levels relate to other qualifications that are available.

78% of employers said they would welcome a guide to the education landscape and how to understand qualifications, together with understanding where the new T Levels fit within the overall model. This encouraged us that our planned guide was indeed required and would be gratefully received.

With regard to new employees we found the impact of the project was considered overwhelmingly positive and they relished the opportunity to feed backwards and help future young people entering the workplace.

Most students found their College had prepared them well for work. The survey allowed us to identify best practice and good behaviours to adopt when starting work. All students conducted preparatory research before starting work such as timing their journey to work and researching the company. The most useful advice they had received before starting work revolved around methods of building confidence and positivity. The common attitudes that promoted success were positivity, enthusiasm, friendliness and a willingness to work hard. In addition, most students were surprised by how welcoming the workplace was and how easy it was to fit in.

The advice provided by the survey such as; how to have confidence to ask questions, a realisation that you are joining the working world where everything does not revolve around you (so you need to mature and be resilient) and an appreciation that nobody wants to work with moody or negative people, has really helped us when producing our guide for young people entering work.

Project Successes

Following the survey phase of the project, the partner Colleges set to work reviewing the results and deciding on the best formats to produce the necessary support materials required to meet the identified needs.

Communication was supported by David Smith, of the Education and Training Foundation, who helped co-ordinate the team and offered helpful advice and guidance, and Joe McLoughlin, of Creative Education, who hosted regular web-based support meetings to help track project progress and quality.

Communication within the group was successful and largely conducted over electronic means, with one dedicated physical group meeting hosted at Cirencester College, following the survey results. A format of short email messages with clear instruction, correctly labelled for each member, was adopted and this appeared to ease the flow of communication and workload.

It was recognised that the group was successful for a number of reasons. Firstly, we communicated well and in a timely fashion. As ‘hub’ for the project, Cirencester College would send regular updates and work requests at various stages of the project. All partners were suitably responsive and willing to contribute equally. Part of this favourable working model was permitted by the fact none of us are in competition with each other, we are all progressive and forward thinking institutions, all had positive outlooks and were willing to experiment, and we were diverse enough to allow for us to learn from each other.

The design of survey materials and questionnaires proved successful. Staff found the teaching survey easy to complete, while employer response levels to the employer survey indicate ease of use and completion (example of staff survey tool design below).

Staff survey tool radar review diagramStaff survey tool radar review diagram

Data gathered was of a volume significant enough for us to make valuable judgements and co-ordinate targeted resources.

The original scope of the project was realistic. This is so important with projects of this nature. we found that outcomes were possible in the time available and that the products would indeed be meaningful.

As our TRIP project progressed, a number of new support and training mechanisms were developed by the ETF for training teachers nationally, from workshops on working with learners with SEND, to training for course managers. We found that this, combined with our own individual in-house training and information sessions met the needs identified in our initial teacher survey.

We successfully scripted the support materials for employers and employees and used a dedicated graphic designer to use typical T Level house style and design and produce resources.
The resource for employers is a large format A1 ‘map-fold’ double sided poster that explains the education landscape and context of T Levels within. One side depicts a quick reference chart, while the other explains in lay-terms the intricacies of qualification size, difficulty level, attainment references, type and who typically takes what qualifications when.

Illustration of T Level reference material      Illustration of T Level reference material

The resource for new employees is a booklet containing valuable tips and advice direct from young people who have been in work for one year. It answers the common fears and anxieties that young people have on entering the workplace and will be a useful tool for allaying fears and settling people into work.

Themes explored include the best way to prepare before you start work, attitudes and approaches to adopt, best advice and also recommendations to new starters following one year of experience.

Illustration of T Level reference material      Illustration of T Level reference material

Illustration of T Level reference material      Illustration of T Level reference material

Project Challenges

Identifying T Level staff at such an early stage, particularly as Shrewsbury College and Queen Mary’s College are not in the 2020 initial phase of T Level delivery, was difficult. Most of us had not reached the point of allocating delivery staff to T Levels in our curriculum planning. We were however able to identify and survey highly likely candidates.

We were particularly aware of staff workload and did not want to overburden staff with additional work. As a result, we designed the survey (as seen above) in a simple ‘target’ format. This made completion straightforward and not time consuming for individual staff, but equally provided us with valuable information.

Our initial intention to design training resources was subsequently superseded by training provision released from the ETF. This is a natural development in the ever changing and growing roll-out of T Levels and other concerns from staff about orientation with the qualifications have been answered by the subsequent release of early draft specifications that have provided much needed information.

We have all recognised the nature of our rurality when contemplating T Levels, both from teaching institution to employer and employee perspectives. Transport continues to be an ever-present concern. Transport infrastructure in rural settings is generally appalling. Bus routes can be sparse and erratic, with poor synergy of timings between locations or transport modes. Even if generous bursary arrangements are made, there is often not a bus in existence for a young person to spend their money on. We have discovered that we all share this common concern and recognise this as a potential barrier for T Level work placement and therefore T Levels generally.

Employer awareness of T Levels has also been a concern. Even with national campaigns, it appears awareness is very low. It is understandable that limited advertising would take place on an initiative that is run by only 50 Colleges in the country, but targeted methods appear to have had a limited effect and we have found that our contact with employers has often been the first they have heard of the new qualifications. Once contact is made the interest levels are generally high, so there feels like something of an open door to push against when trying to ‘sell’ T Levels to employers and perhaps there have been missed opportunities in connecting early at this stage.
Otherwise, apart from recognising these themes through conducting the project, the project has been manageable and appropriate and has produced useful resources.

Future activity to support T Level implementation and delivery

Overall, the project has been meaningful and of value. The relationships with partner Colleges have been strengthened and the potential for working together in future is great. The resources produced will be helpful to other providers, not just employers and new employees.

We found that aspects outlined by teachers relating to anxiety over planning a new course were answered by our other TRIP project, while other elements were subsequently responded to by developments outside of our project scope (new training from the ETF and draft specification releases). It would be recommended that we return to T Level teaching staff as establishment planning goes forward with haste, and survey them again. This would identify if the support in place has proved sufficient, or indeed if there is need for further training and staff development resources.

If a wider-scale production of the employer poster and new employee guide were to take place then perhaps the inclusion of more ‘box feature’ case studies and T Level course specific details would bolster and add to the value of each resource.

I would like to thank my partners in this project: Jane Martin (Shrewsbury College), Helen Henderson (Queen Mary’s College) and Alex Day (Peter Symonds College) for their help and support in surveying and interviewing staff, employers and new employees. I would also like to thank David Smith and Joe McLoughlin for their support and guidance through the project journey.

“The collaboration between the partner colleges has been really rewarding. Add to that the development of staff, closer relationships with employers, and ultimately the genuine support for learners, makes this a meaningful project and one of value for all of us.”

Matt Reynolds
Vice Principal, T&L and Development
Cirencester College

Recommendations for preparing for T Levels

  • Don’t look through the lens of existing vocational qualifications. T Levels are different.
  • Employers knowledge of education is typically limited to their own experience (a late 40’s recruiting manager would have done C.S.E’s or O Levels themselves), or more likely a vague understanding of what their children are doing if they have any. They will need help understanding the new qualifications.
  • Never underestimate how new employees can help you. They are right in the mix and have valuable insight.
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