Qualifications cull could kill off awarding bodies

Switching to single versions may put small, specialist organisations out of business

Will Martin & Stephen Exley

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Efforts to simplify post-16 technical education by removing 20,000 qualifications could lead to dozens of awarding bodies going out of business, experts have warned.

One of the most significant elements of the government’s Skills Plan, which was published last week, is that under the new system, technical qualifications at levels 2 and 3 will be offered by a single awarding body.

Currently, about 160 awarding organisations offer qualifications that are described in the Sainsbury review, released alongside the Skills Plan, as delivering “similar but different outcomes”. The report, which has been approved by the government, calls for a licensing approach, with a single body or consortium being approved to offer the sole version of each qualification.

A senior exam board source told TES that if smaller awarding organisations were forced to compete against the largest exam boards, they were “just not going to have a chance”.

The move has already triggered an announcement by qualifications watchdog Ofqual that it will shortly remove 2,000 qualifications that have not been awarded for at least two years from its register. Thousands more courses are likely to be dropped in the run-up to the full introduction of the new post-16 system in 2019.

The Skills Plan makes the case for single qualifications by saying that: “Instead of competition between different awarding organisations leading to better quality and innovation in the design of qualifications, it can lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in which awarding organisations compete to offer qualifications which are easier to pass and therefore of lower value.

“Having to choose between a large number of qualifications is also confusing for students and parents. We will put in place only one approved tech-level qualification for each occupation or cluster of occupations within a route.”

‘They don’t stand a chance’

Sally Collier, Ofqual’s chief regulator, said that awarding organisations affected by the changes would be contacted by the end of this month “to explain how we intend to achieve this significant reduction” ahead of procurement for the new qualifications beginning in 2018.

But the exam board source told TES that the market for smaller bodies would get “swept up” by the largest organisations such as City & Guilds, Pearson and OCR.

“Smaller awarding organisations are just not going to have a chance,” he said. “The resources you have to put into bidding for, let alone winning, a government contract are just phenomenal. The big players will have a massive advantage over the smaller niche providers, of which there are many.”

Plans to have one awarding body for each qualification for GCSEs were mooted in 2011, but were eventually scrapped.

Mark Dawe, chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers, said that switching to a single awarding body for each route would “dramatically impact” on organisations that were offering overlapping qualifications.

In 2012, when Mr Dawe was at the helm of OCR, the board set up the qualifications now known as Cambridge Technicals to compete with BTECs and break what he described at the time as “Pearson’s monopoly”. Under the plans for reform, both suites of qualifications could be affected.

“There’s going to be a big impact for a number of large awarding bodies,” Mr Dawe said. “You’re going to have a bidding process, and even then there could be national colleges and sector bodies bidding, rather than just awarding bodies. So it certainly throws everything in the air and it could have a massive impact on vocational qualification providers.”

Panic ‘not in our nature’

The majority of the Federation of Awarding Bodies’ 130 members would be affected by the changes, according to chief executive Stephen Wright.

“It particularly damages niche and specialist awarding bodies,” he said. “Quite often they’re the trade associations and the professional associations – [organisations] that you would imagine the government would be most keen to have involved in the provision of qualifications, as they are run by employers.

“If you boil down vocational and technical education into 15 areas, they’re going to be so enormously broad that they’ll have the same problem that we’ve had with the 14-19 diploma: the standards are such a compromise that employers don’t really value them.”

Gemma Gathercole, head of FE and funding policy at OCR, said more details were needed before the impact on awarding bodies would become clear.

“I think for us to truly assess the implications, we need a bit more detail about what that tendering process is actually going to look like and how big those tenders are going to be,” she said. “I don’t think it is in the nature of any of us to panic.

“There have been many attempts over many years to correct this failing of perception around what the technical education system actually delivers and we have to commit to getting it right.”

This is an article from the 15 July edition of TES. This week's TES magazine is available in all good newsagents. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here

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Will Martin & Stephen Exley

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