The government’s tendering process for a single awarding body to deliver each T level qualification is “fundamentally flawed”, according to the Federation of Awarding Bodies.
FAB chief executive Tom Bewick said there were “concerns that the government is using [the procurement process] to destabilise and undermine the market”, despite reassurances from the Department for Education. “It would be wrong to talk about apocalyptic scenarios, but we have got a lot of work to do to ensure that [awarding bodies'] integrity and commerciality is not undermined,” he said.
While Mr Bewick said it was too early to consider whether legal action will be required, this issue was being kept “under review”. The Department for Education and Institute for Apprenticeships – which is due to assume responsibility for T levels later this year – are also understood to be preparing for a legal battle over the process.
Walking a legal tightrope
As for the potential disruption and delays this may cause, much will depend on the extent to which the government complies with UK and EU rules and gives “everyone a fair chance in accordance with clearly stated criteria”, according to Smita Jamdar, partner and head of education at law firm Shakespeare Martineau. “There is no reason you can’t do what the government wants to do, but it is very easy to get procurement wrong. This is such a high-stakes procurement.”
And should any flaws in the procurement process emerge, resulting action would be likely, given the stakes for individual awarding bodies: “The incentive to be quite aggressive is there,” she added.
The plan for each of the new T level qualifications to be offered and awarded by a single awarding body or consortium, under a five-year licence, were outlined in the Sainsbury review. Instead of the current competitive market in which a number of awarding organisations offer their version of a qualification, there would be only one provider.
The single-awarding concept was famously made a central tenet of Michael Gove’s ill-fated plans for English Baccalaureate qualifications when he was education secretary. But concerns over legal complications, not least with regard to EU procurement laws, were a major factor in Gove’s decision to abort the proposals in 2013.
When plans for T levels were announced, the single awarding body concept was immediately seized upon as the riskiest element of the reforms. But five years on from Gove’s climbdown, the DfE has repeatedly insisted that this time, it is not for turning.
Tenders for the individual T-level pathways will be launched in the autumn. Two market engagement events for prospective bidders took place this month. A spokesperson for the DfE said: “We are following the recommendation of Lord Sainsbury that there should be a single awarding body for each T level pathway, and will work with awarding bodies in implementing our approach.”
This is an edited version of an article in the 22 June edition of Tes. Subscribers can read the full story here. To subscribe, click here. To download the digital edition, Android users can click here and iOS users can click here. Tes magazine is available at all good newsagents