Qualifications that "overlap" with T levels, including Btecs, will no longer receive public funding, the government has confirmed.
Apprenticeships, A levels and T levels will become the main progression options after GCSEs, it added.
In a policy statement published this afternoon, the Department for Education said it was "committed to ensuring that as many young people as possible benefit from our rigorous, employer-led T levels".
"They are the gold-standard technical study programmes for 16- to 19-year-olds. Therefore, in the new landscape, other large academic qualifications that overlap in content with T levels, which might include [applied general qualifications] AGQs such as Pearson Btec and OCR Cambridge Technical qualifications, will no longer receive public funding."
The DfE added: "We are convinced that this is the correct approach to support successful progression, either to higher education or employment."
The government said it would not provide a list of the qualifications or the subjects that will be funded in future.
Btecs vs T levels: The changing post-16 education landscape
It said: "All qualifications will need to pass the new approvals process to be eligible for public funding. This approvals process will check the necessity of the qualification, check for T-level overlap (where relevant), and that it meets new criteria on quality, in order to be eligible for funding."
This morning, the DfE said it will “shake up” the post-16 education system to remove low-quality qualifications that lack job prospects. The new system will be phased in between 2023 and 2025.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “As we recover from the pandemic, there can be no room in our education system for second-rate qualifications. Great qualifications are essential to helping everyone – no matter their age or background – to get good jobs and realise their ambitions.
“These reforms will simplify and streamline the current system, ensuring that whatever qualification a young person or an adult chooses, they can be confident that it will be high-quality and will lead to good outcomes.”
In March 2019, the DfE opened a consultation on qualifications at level 3, stating a desire to remove any "poor-quality, post-16 qualifications". In August 2020, the DfE removed funding for more than 160 duplicate qualifications, and in August 2021, funding for a further 2,200 will be removed, and no further new qualification at level 3 and below will be approved for funding.
In the announcement today, the DfE said: “There are currently over 4,000 qualifications at level 3 approved for government funding, with multiple qualifications in the same subject areas available – many of which are poor quality and offer little value to students or employers.
“This includes over 200 engineering qualifications, over 200 qualifications in building and construction, and 15 plumbing qualifications, ranging from courses that are 170 learning hours to more than 1,800. In comparison, countries with high-performing technical education systems such as Germany and Switzerland offer fewer than 500 technical qualifications in total.”
Level 3 qualifications reform: the sector's concerns
The level 3 consultation has sparked concern across the sector, and many have warned against scrapping Btecs and Cambridge Nationals in favour of offering learners a binary choice between A levels and T levels.
Speaking on the announcement today, David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges, urged the government to reconsider its plan to defund qualifications, and said more time was needed for the T levels to become established before any successful existing qualifications can be defunded.
“If the government really wants to level up, it needs to slow down this major reform and recognise the risks to thousands of young people," he said. "We are big supporters of T levels because they have the potential to improve the reputation and standing of technical education if they are implemented properly, alongside other qualifications. Colleges want to deliver them and employers are beginning to understand them and warm to them. Working with colleges, this reform would be a success, so it is difficult to see why the Department for Education is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
"We don’t need a strong-armed approach to force change – that change will happen. This approach risks leaving thousands of disadvantaged students with limited or no routes to progress into work or continuing education when they need them most.
"We urge DfE to take a moment, work with the college sector, and create a new rollout plan that ensures T levels are a success, whilst not inadvertently disadvantaging thousands of already disadvantaged students with their quest for speed. Doing that will ensure that all students in all parts of the country are able to find the right course for them and their aspirations. Collaboration, not confrontation, working with rather than doing to.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “The proposals set out today have the potential to be hugely damaging to the prospects and life chances of young people in England. It is clear that the government intends to sweep away the vast majority of applied general qualifications like Btecs, and students will only have the option to study A levels or T levels from the age of 16.
"But for many young people, studying a Btec qualification will be a much more effective route to higher education or skilled employment. Closing down this route means that thousands of students will be left without a viable pathway after they have finished their GCSEs – that’s bad for young people, bad for social mobility and bad for the economy. We’ll continue to work with the 10 education bodies in the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign to encourage the government to rethink these simplistic and regressive proposals."
Last month, 11 education bodies, including the SFCA, joined forces to urge the government to rethink plans to defund Btecs. The education bodies, including the NEU teaching union and the Association of School and College Leaders, said removing funding for Btecs will leave many students without a viable pathway at the age of 16.
Tom Bewick, the Federation of Awarding Bodies' chief executive, said: “Despite all the consultation responses that the Department for Education received, it is disappointing to see that government continues to focus on the number of regulated qualifications, instead of supporting course diversity and real careers choices for young people post-16.
“The federation has always supported the need for a housekeeping exercise and to remove qualifications at level 3 that are obsolete or no longer certificate. But the notion in a British economy, with over 75,000 different job roles currently available, that the number of qualifications made available can be reduced to a mere handful is fanciful. If policymakers listened to parents, learners and college community leaders as much as to employers, they would know that.
“The outcome of this particular review is taking the country in the wrong direction. It will not help level up across the regions of England and it will result in less opportunities for disadvantaged learners in future.
“We know the tripartite post-war education experiment failed and this latest approach from the government, albeit an approach to tracking learners at 16 years old, has the potential to fail as well. As the distinguished former secretary of state for education, Lord Baker, said recently: what the government is proposing here smacks of a form of ‘educational apartheid. Frankly, learners deserve better.”
UCU general secretary Jo Grady said: "The government talks about levelling up. But scrapping Btecs would shut down a key entry route into higher education for those that don’t take A levels. This will be disastrous for widening participation, as black and Asian students are more likely to use Btecs to get into university, as are students from working-class backgrounds.
"Bringing in T levels on such a short timescale will create huge pressure on staff and damage students currently taking Btecs and other vocational qualifications. And there is no evidence it will improve outcomes. College staff know best how to meet the needs of their students, so ministers need to invest in them instead of creating false and unhelpful divides between academic and technical qualifications and dictating to the sector."
Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of the City and Guilds Group, said: “While we fully support the need for a review of level 3 qualifications to ensure they all lead to further study or a job, we are disappointed that the government does not seem to have genuinely listened to the evidence provided by employers and experts within the further education sector in their consultation.
“The proposed narrowing of choice to T levels, A levels or an apprenticeship post GCSE is simply not broad enough. Employers in many sectors have told us that they need a broader range of options available to allow them to access workers with industry-specific skills. We also need to ensure that there are options available for students with different needs and abilities; for example, we must make sure there are part-time options available for those that cannot commit to full-time study. We would like to understand what evidence the government has used to conclude that some qualifications that are currently well regarded by employers and educators are ‘low quality’ and should no longer be funded.
“We hope government will not throw the baby out with the bathwater, and take a second more nuanced look at the qualifications that are genuinely needed to help learners to progress and businesses to access the skilled workforces they need. We would like to see greater consideration given to including options based on combining a carefully selected set of alternative high-quality, in demand technical and academic qualifications, which would provide much-needed flexibility and increase of choice at level 3.
“We also urge government not to move too hastily and take a phased approach to making such radical changes to the post-16 education system, testing that new options work before taking away the alternatives.”