‘The days of FE provider autonomy are numbered’

Federation of Awarding Bodies chief executive Tom Bewick blasts qualification reforms and warns of consequences of the new skills bill
30th June 2021, 11:13am


‘The days of FE provider autonomy are numbered’

Fe Provider Autonomy: 'days Are Numbered'

The days of further education providers having significant autonomy and choice over their local curriculum offer are numbered, Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, has said.

Speaking at a Westminster Education Forum on the reform of post-16 technical and academic qualifications at level 3 and below, Mr Bewick today blasted the government’s qualification reforms and warned of the consequences of the new Skills and Post-16 Education Bill. 

The bill is currently making its way through Parliament, and heralds significant reform for the further education sector. 

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Mr Bewick said when FE principals and leaders came to look back at the new skills bill, they would ask how “such a power grab” had been allowed to happen.

He said: “Once we are through this summer’s extraordinary arrangement, the teacher-assessed grades, I think more retention and wider scrutiny will turn to the future qualifications landscape. 

“With the skills bill becoming law by autumn, it will become ever more apparent that the days of FE providers having significant autonomy and choice over their local curriculum offer are numbered. We will start to understand more fully how deep the rationalisation of qualifications at level three and below will go, and we’ll start to see more college principals and civic leaders, in my view, around the country, asking why such a power grab by Whitehall was ever allowed to happen.” 

The impact of reform in post-16 qualifications

review of post-16 qualifications is currently under way, and the government is considering cutting the number of alternative qualifications at level 3, including BTECs, and putting more focus on the new T levels. 

Mr Bewick said: “The government’s own impact assessment of these reforms says that the numbers of 16- to 25-year-olds not in education, employment or training is actually likely to increase as a result of these reforms, and those with special educational needs in really niche qualification areas could also lose out. 

“None of this sounds particularly good, of course, for social mobility, so you really have to ask, how is this policy living up to the rhetoric of levelling up and reskilling our society as we emerge from the pandemic?”

In the forum, other speakers also highlighted the impact that defunding applied generals, such as BTECs, and moving towards a binary model of A levels or T levels would have on students. 

Ben Jordan, Ucas’ senior policy unit manager, highlighted data around the profiles of students who currently study applied generals, and said BTEC students were more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds, to be black or ethnically diverse, and to be mature. 

Sian Owen, Pearson’s head of stakeholder engagement, said the proposals risk limiting choice for young people and warned that access to T levels will be restricted for certain learners.

She said: “These proposals, as they stand, they really risk setting out a limited choice for young people, and they could end up not being sufficient for the broad choice of high-quality qualifications needed in a system that works for all students.

“There are practical issues around T levels, they’ll be restricted for learners in regions where job placements are not available - because there are no big or small employers in the sector that they’re interested in in the region - and, even where relevant sectors do operate in a locality, work experience may be difficult to find, particularly after employers prioritise recovery post-Covid.”

She added: “The pandemic has highlighted, really, the need for a more skilled workforce which I know the government are acutely aware of, but it’s also highlighted some of the inequalities that exist, impacting those from disadvantaged backgrounds more.

“It’s a time we need to be thinking about the options we provide to all learners, no matter what their backgrounds and their ambitions and their talents are. We need to be thinking about how we ensure that we keep a rich and diverse level three curriculum that supports all to progress.”

Earlier this month, 11 education bodies joined forces to urge the government to rethink plans to defund BTECs.

The education bodies, including the Sixth Form Colleges Association, the NEU teaching union and the Association of School and College Leaders, say removing funding for BTECs will leave many students without a viable pathway at the age of 16. 

A Department for Education Spokesperson said: “Our reforms to technical education are more crucial now as we recover from the pandemic. For too long we have allowed too many young people to leave education without the skills employers need - it’s critical we act now to address these skills shortages.

“We are putting employers at the heart of the skills system and boosting the quality of qualifications on offer so that all students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, can be confident that whatever option they take post-16 it will be high quality and will lead to good outcomes.

“We have always been clear we want to phase these reforms in so that they are manageable.”

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