Government reforms aimed at increasing the rigour of vocational courses have created “incredibly hard” qualifications that will result in students missing out on university, the boss of one of the country’s leading academy trusts has warned.
Sir Daniel Moynihan, the chief executive of the Harris Federation, said he feared there would be a “shock” next year with many young people not achieving the grades they need in the "applied general qualifications".
Harris has exclusively shared early national data with Tes showing that the proportion of students getting the grades required to do vocational courses at university has plummeted since the qualifications were reformed.
Applied general qualifications are "level 3" courses, such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals, and are aimed at those not sitting A levels. They are supposed to provide students with a broad study of a specific vocational area – such as engineering, business or IT.
Some universities recognise these qualifications as fulfilling entry requirements for a range of courses.
The qualifications were reformed by the government to introduce units assessed by external examinations, which now account for up to 50 per cent of courses. Sir Daniel told Tes this was supposed to bring “comparability of status and rigour” with A levels.
However, he said the changes had actually created “incredibly hard” qualifications, which “vast numbers of kids who would have passed in the past are now failing”.
Vocational students 'won't get through'
As a result, “a significant group of youngsters” who would have gone on to degrees in vocational topics, such as business management, nursing, IT and sport science, “are not going to get through”, he warned.
The new courses were introduced in 2016 and generally take two years to complete. However, Harris has collated national data relating to students who completed the qualification in one year – a cohort of pupils which Sir Daniel said it was not an “unreasonable assumption” to think were “probably brighter than most”.
The figures show a dramatic decrease in the proportion of students getting the Distinction and Distinction* grades which are normally needed for university entry.
The results for the new OCR Cambridge Technicals show that 18.3 per cent of students achieved a Distinction and just 6.4 per cent a Distinction*.
In the old Cambridge Technicals, 16.4 per cent achieved a Distinction and 53.6 per cent a Distinction*.
Meanwhile, for the new BTEC extended certificate, 20.9 per cent achieved a Distinction and only 3 per cent a Distinction*.
For the old BTEC subsidiary diploma, 16.2 per cent achieved a Distinction and 46.8 per cent a Distinction*.
Even more striking is the fact that 30.4 per cent of students failed to achieve the overall qualification in the 2016 BTEC, compared with a failure rate for A levels of just 1.9 per cent.
Sir Daniel said Harris’s own performance was “comparable” with the national figures. He pointed out that while his schools had achieved their “best ever results” in the reformed GCSEs and A levels, they had seen “much-reduced pass rates” for the vocational courses – even though both sets of students were often taught by the same teachers.
If action is not taken, Sir Daniel said he feared there would be “a shock next summer”. He warned that post-16 providers would start hiking their own entry requirements, and that the difficulty of the courses would push students towards A levels – even though they may not be the right qualification for them.
He said the problem could be solved if universities lowered their entry requirements, or if awarding bodies started "standardising" the grades they award – something that happens for GCSEs and A levels but not these courses.
Sir Daniel said it was wrong-headed to think that exams are the best way to ensure parity with academic qualifications. “The way to create parity is to have rigorous content and continual assessment, and make these courses high status because they involve real-life vocational situations.”
He said Harris had raised its concerns with the Department for Education and was awaiting its response.
A spokesman for OCR said: “The DfE’s requirement for external assessment in new applied general qualifications is a big change.
“We’re doing everything that we can to support teachers and students through this change, including free teacher training and detailed exam feedback reports.”
Rod Bristow, president of Pearson UK, which provides the BTEC, said: "What we have seen from the very small number of results to date is that the percentage of learners achieving the top Distinction* grade is lower than with the predecessor qualification.
“This is as we expected and we have worked with schools, colleges and universities to explain these changes.”
A DfE spokeswoman said: “We introduced additional requirements for technical and applied qualifications to be included in performance tables as part of the decisive action to raise standards.
“We are working with Ofqual and UCAS to ensure that universities know the difference between the reformed and pre-existing qualifications.”