The government’s ongoing review of qualifications at level 3 and below raises serious questions about the purpose of many of the qualifications that colleges offer and could have profound implications for a whole generation of young people as well as adults. So perhaps it’s unsurprising just how sceptical many people seem to be about whether it is a true consultation or whether the government already knows what it will do.
For what it is worth, I am usually optimistic that a consultation like this is being carried out with integrity – and in this case I am pretty certain. My optimism is based on just how complex qualification reform is, and because I am sure that officials recognise how far-reaching the consequences of any changes are.
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The consequences of T levels
We’ve been working with officials on this issue ever since T levels were announced, and the understanding amongst officials has improved markedly since then. If officials needed any more help to reach the best conclusions, the events, discussions and feedback they are getting will help enormously.
Colleges, the Association of Colleges, awarding bodies, universities and many others will engage with this consultation strenuously, I am sure.
The consultation is about very complex issues and it is too easy to get lost in all sorts of rabbit holes without pinning down the key issues. To help, we have set out some basic principles which we want to share widely in order to help stimulate discussion and debate. The principles have emerged from our discussions with colleges which have already thrown up differences of opinion which will make it harder to reach a consensus.
10 principles for qualifications reform
- Any change should be in the interests of students, society and the economy and lead to a better offer. The change process should build consensus, be carefully paced and ensure that the sector has the necessary capacity.
- All qualifications should have a clear purpose, focus on progression with clear lines of sight to employment and/or further study, and be of appropriate size and have appropriate assessment methods.
- The success of a qualification should be judged in terms of improvement in the progression opportunities, skills, knowledge and confidence of students who achieve it.
- Qualifications should only be withdrawn when a clear replacement is available which is demonstrably more effective in preparing for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting success, inclusion and social mobility.
- The level 3 offer should be designed to meet the needs of the full range of learners at this level, whether young people or adults, full time or part time and on academic, technical or apprenticeship routes.
- The technical route should include other qualifications as well as T levels, e.g., in non-T level areas such as sport, public service, performing arts, travel and tourism and be open to students of all ages.
- Where T levels are established in a sector or occupation, they should aim to be the full-time technical route of choice for that sector.
- The technical route, like the academic route, should allow for shorter qualifications which can be combined or offered with other qualifications and whose content could overlap with T levels.
- The transition phase should include high-quality technical qualifications at level 2 and below to help prepare students for progression and/or employment.
- High-quality personal and social development qualifications should be available for students at all levels and there should be a funded entitlement to a strong common core of personal and social development for all 16- to 18-year-olds.
I hope that these principles will help us find as much common ground as possible in our sector’s response to this important review. We may not get 100 per cent agreement on every one of them and people will want to emphasise different aspects. Whatever the outcome of this next phase of reform, it is England’s colleges which will have to make the system work. So, in partnership with government, we all have a strong interest in getting it right for the next generation of students.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges