Last week, the Department for Education extended the deadline for responding to its review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England by two weeks. This was hardly front-page news – a short extension to the second stage of an innocuous-sounding consultation that was first launched way back in March 2019.
But this review is likely to have a much greater impact on 16 to 18 education than the "revolutionary" FE White Paper that will no doubt dominate the headlines in the coming days. For one thing, the outcome of the level 3 consultation will affect all students, not just those studying in FE.
The government’s plan to make T levels and A levels the two main qualifications available to 16- to 18-year-olds, and to remove funding for the majority of applied general qualifications (AGQs) to aid the introduction of this binary system, would be disastrous for employers, young people and social mobility.
For many students, an A level or a T level will simply not be the most appropriate route to support progression to higher levels of study or a meaningful job. The newly reformed, more rigorous applied general qualifications (AGQs) like Btecs have an equally important role to play in the future qualifications landscape.
Btecs: Applied general qualifications are important for the future
Although AGQs are often available in similar subjects, they are a different type of qualification that provide a different type of educational experience – one that combines the development of skills with academic learning. Our members have a rich history of AGQ success stories and they are popular with students and employers. So why are AGQs so unpopular with ministers?
The main reason is perhaps because they are regarded as a barrier to increasing the take-up of T levels – one of the Department for Education’s main policy priorities. But far from driving up participation in T levels, reducing the number of AGQs is more likely to increase the number of young people enrolling on A levels. Some will succeed, many will not, and we could see more students drop out of education altogether as a result. This is surely not a price worth paying. T levels are an important and welcome development, but they should succeed on their own merits, not by reducing the number of AGQs.
Ministers are also keen to suggest there is widespread "confusion" with the current qualifications landscape. Our members report very little confusion from a student perspective. There are only 39 AGQ subjects available across the entire sixth-form college sector, and a similar number of A levels. And there is little scope for confusion when qualifications are well planned, bedded in and have demonstrable progression routes.
When it comes to "levelling up", it is hard to think of a more effective vehicle than AGQs. Our own consultation response highlights the vital role these qualifications play in ensuring students (particularly those with lower levels of prior attainment) remain in sixth-form education, achieve a qualification and progress to higher education.
But, unfortunately, the government seems determined to embark on a misguided tidying up exercise that will leave many young people without a viable pathway at the age of 16. How should we encourage ministers to chart a different course?
First, we need to be really clear about the impact that the government’s proposals would have if implemented as set out in the consultation. Now is not the time for gentle suggestions about the pace or style of implementation. These proposals have the potential to be hugely damaging and we should say so.
Qualifications that can exist alongside T levels
Second, in making this case we should not be afraid of being perceived as anti-T level. It is perfectly possible to be pro-AGQ and pro-T level. Both have an important role to play in the future qualifications landscape. But, fundamentally, T levels should operate alongside, not instead of, AGQs.
Third, we must have a practical alternative to what is being proposed. AGQs, like A levels, have recently undergone a process of reform and the new version of the qualification is much more rigorous and demanding. Technical qualifications are being transformed through the introduction of T levels. Even if a three-route model consisting of these reformed qualifications proved to be politically unpalatable, it would be straightforward to fit individual AGQs into either the academic or technical route.
And fourth, we must speak with one voice. Over the coming weeks and months, we hope to develop shared messages with FE colleges and school sixth forms, employers and universities, trade unions and awarding bodies. A single set of shared, evidence-based messages is needed to get students, parents, MPs and others to throw their weight behind this vital cause.
James Kewin is deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association