The Federation of Awarding Bodies has urged the government to delay the first wave of T levels in light of the coronavirus pandemic.
In a letter to apprenticeships and skills minister Gillian Keegan, seen by Tes, Tom Bewick, chief executive of FAB, said the federation supported many of the flexibilities and adjustments that have been made in recent weeks, whilst strict social distancing measures have been put in place.
He said while FAB members shared the government’s ambition to introduce the new level 3 qualifications when they were ready, it was perhaps still too early to say exactly what impact Covid-19 would have on the colleges and on the employers where students are expected to carry out a structured industry placement. As such, he said, the introduction of the first wave of T levels should be postponed.
Coronavirus: T-level delivery 'under review'
'Postpone T levels because of coronavirus'
Mr Bewick said that considering the existing uncertainty, as well as the recent advice from the deputy chief medical officer that disruption to our normal way of life could last for at least six months, “I would urge you to think about postponing the (wave 1) T levels, due to be rolled out in September this year”.
“Our recommendation to you is to combine wave 1 with wave 2 rollout, commencing September 2021. This would result in a critical mass of 10 new T-level qualifications being available to level 3 students from 2021, instead of just the three T levels planned this year," he said.
“The reason for this request is because the federation does not believe that the approved delivery network of providers will be able to fully cope with the introduction of T levels in September due to the unfolding crisis of Covid-19. Moreover, we think that the focus of many firms over the coming months will be one of financial recovery. This will make it extremely difficult to engage companies to offer high-quality industry placements in the foreseeable future.”
Last week, Tes revealed the government was keeping the delivery timeline for T levels under review. While the majority of first-wave providers said they were continuing to prepare for provision from September, a number raised concerns over the availability to offer industry placements for students, or to commit staff to the new qualifications.
In his letter, Mr Bewick also stressed that the vocational technical qualifications (VTQs) landscape was complex and the government should not give in to pressure to move towards teacher assessment in these qualifications – the route taken following the cancellation of GCSE and A-level exams.
“Often, these non-linear and/or competency-based qualifications will share an array of appropriate assessment methods. Ofqual regulates VTQs to ensure they attract the highest possible levels of public confidence. Moreover, if they didn’t apply a robust approach, for example, to the reliability and validity of VTQs, we could potentially see significant harm caused to other people in society because of incompetent individuals or apprentices being wrongly assessed or certified to practise in a trade or skill. In that very real sense, VTQs are not like academic qualifications such as GCSEs and A levels, where the main downside of ‘failing’ a qualification is felt more by the individual.
“I appreciate that you will be coming under significant pressure from some college and training provider representative bodies to allow teacher estimation of functional skills qualification (FSQ) results; on the basis that to do otherwise could disadvantage learners compared to their peers in the same cohort taking GCSEs. However, I would strongly urge you not to make a decision on this basis which could really undermine public confidence in the VTQ system as a whole.
"I am aware from working with Ofqual colleagues on this that they have some serious concerns about applying an estimation model to FSQs (which are fundamentally different to GCSEs). I believe it is vital that both AOs and the qualifications regulator can stand behind awards made on this basis, which I very much doubt they will feel able to, because of the major differences between FSQs and GCSEs."
He said estimated grades risked undermining public confidence in these qualifications “before they have even had a chance to become established”. “Instead, we are supporting our members, with the regulator, to work through what other forms of adaption of assessment methodology might be appropriate to allow robust assessments to go ahead, where necessary. For candidates where the need is not urgent, it would be better to delay assessments.” Online technology and remote assessment could also be considered, Mr Bewick said.
“I would encourage the department and Ofqual, therefore, to work with these [awarding organisations] to roll-out a credible online model of assessment over the coming weeks. This approach is more preferable than allowing a provider-led functional skills model that is based on tutor estimation with all the drawbacks already discussed. Given the urgency, and while recognising the very difficult circumstances, I would urge you to reach a swift decision on extending the availability of legacy FSQs, so that learners who were due to take their assessments in the coming weeks do not ‘time out’ in August 2020. Since, in such cases, they would need to undergo a significant additional teaching and learning to prepare them for the reformed versions of the qualifications, adding to further pressures on providers.”
Assessment for vocational qualifications
On apprenticeships, Mr Bewick stressed it was important to be realistic about how many of the approved apprenticeship frameworks/standards lend themselves to distance-learning and remote assessment techniques. “For many practically-based skilled occupations, the notion of computer-based remote assessments will be impossible. It is why many [end-point assessment organisations (EPAOs)] report to us that they are simply mothballing operations and placing staff on furlough.
“I’m afraid that what this crisis has brutally exposed is the complete inadequacy of the external quality assurance model for English apprenticeships. Twenty [external quality assurance] bodies (EQAs) currently have this role and my members have reported major inconsistencies and difficulties working with EQAs since their inception.
“The vast majority of the federation’s EPAO members strongly supports the Institute’s EQA consultation, which sets out a more streamlined approach to external quality assurance in future. We agree with the central proposition that only statutory bodies like the Institute, Ofqual and OfS should be involved in this critical function, paid for by central government.
"On this note, I have written separately to the chief executive of the Institute calling on her to scrap the EQA charges introduced in November 2019 with immediate effect. It cannot be right that we have some EQA bodies effectively profiteering off the back of the current crisis when this quality assurance role should always have been undertaken by statutory bodies free of charge."
Kirstie Donnelly, chief executive of City & Guilds Group, said it was more important now than ever that the sector come together with one voice, "and respect the whole skills ecosystem we belong to, while ensuring that funding goes through the whole supply chain".
"Coming out of this 'annus horribilis' has to be our moment as a sector to finally articulate a clear connected vision for FE and skills – one that embraces new ways to go online and blends our offers in the way we have been forced to do right now," she said.
"There can't be a one-size-fits-all approach to matters such as assessment and teacher estimation, which can work for GCSEs but is not suitable for many of our vital functional skills qualifications, and even some vocational technical qualifications.
"As a leading awarding organisation, we would urge the government to work with FAB and so I welcome Tom’s letter so that we can advise on the most appropriate methods of assessment that will suit this current crisis, but also ensure we are still producing highly skilled people who are job-competent. As we come out of this crisis, we will need a thriving skills system that is able to support people to skill and reskill, helping the country to get back on its feet and move forwards. The only way to do this is by working together on a collective strategy and respecting one another’s vital role in our skills ecosystem. "
A spokesperson for the Department for Education said: “We are aware that the coronavirus will impact T level providers. We are working closely with providers as the situation develops. However, as it stands, we are continuing to work with all involved and expect to roll out the first three T levels from this September as planned.”