As part of its work on the introduction of T levels, the government is looking at the case for Applied General qualifications (AGs). AGs are level 3 qualifications, often taken alongside A levels and usually with university admissions in mind. Last year, more than one in five qualifications taken by 16- to 19-year-olds were AGs – almost 209,000 of them. So this matters. It really matters.
The government’s decision about the future of AGs will have huge implications for what young people can choose to study, the courses sixth forms can offer and the skills that young people will bring to university and the workplace. The study of AGs brings an additional dimension to a sixth-form experience. It adds, to rigorous level 3 academic study, the development of essential skills, such as problem-solving, team-building, independent study and communication.
The review of AGs comes at a time when the government is consolidating its focus on more rigorous and challenging curriculum content and examinations, and when the AGs are still available in the old unreformed format, as well as a new, more demanding format that includes an externally set and externally assessed examination. We are well down the road of the new GCSEs and A levels, introduced when Michael Gove was education secretary. The new ones are in and the old ones no longer exist. But in the case of AGs, the new ones are in, and the old ones are still available.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, many sixth forms are sticking with the old format. They feel that students are more likely to get better results and to secure their university place with the old (QCF) format. Some have resisted moving to the new (RQF) format because they don’t want to invest all the time, energy and resource involved in migrating to a new version while there is uncertainty about the future of AGs. Others have pointed to the cliff-edge examination issue – pass the new 40 per cent examination element or fail the whole course, no matter how well you do in the other 60 per cent – and the number of resits allowed – originally only one, but now increased to two, for this year only – as barriers to opting for the RQF version.
Sticking with the old
It is not clear to many why the old format is not being phased out as the new one is being introduced – as happened with GCSEs and A levels. But the unsurprising consequence of this decision is that the majority of sixth-form teachers are remaining with the old. The trouble is, this is not necessarily good for the future of AGs. If everyone involved were to switch to the new format today, the government might be more inclined to look kindly on arguments in favour of preserving AGs. Stick with the old, and the risk is that the government will not value AGs as a rigorous, high-value qualification.
The following five propositions may be important in moving the debate about applied general qualifications forward:
1. The Industrial Strategy and the Skills Plan cannot be delivered through T levels alone
You might not think this, if you consider how much time and resource is being spent on the T-level agenda. Of course, a suitably skilled workforce is critical to our ability to compete in a global marketplace. But equally important to our economy is a supply pipeline of young people with AGs, A levels and degrees who can be the scientists, business leaders and teachers of the future.
2. The government won’t push more people into T levels by dropping AGs and presenting a binary choice at 16
Only 10 per cent of level 3 learners currently choose to study for technical qualifications; 59 per cent choose A levels, and 23 per cent choose AGs or a mix of A levels and AGs. If you take the AGs option out of the mix, what will all those young people choose to study instead?
3. AGs are important levers for social mobility
A significantly higher proportion of AG students come from areas of low participation, disadvantaged backgrounds, black and minority ethnic families and families with no previous experience of HE.
4. Schools and colleges should migrate as soon as possible to the new specifications in order to prolong the life of AGs
A number of universities, particularly the selecting rather than recruiting ones, are looking more favourably on the new AGs when considering their admissions criteria. The government has for some years been advocating the kind of challenge and assessment methodology found in the new AGs.
5. We need to incentivise a wholesale switch to the new AGs and remove any concerns or barriers
The government can force the switch overnight if it wants to: by removing funding for the old AGs. And it can support teachers by removing altogether the exam cliff edge – the recent introduction of the N grade (Pearson) and R grade (OCR) goes some way towards doing this but not far enough. By extending the number of resits allowed so that AGs have parity with A levels and other qualifications; and by guaranteeing the future of AGs for at least five years. The exam boards also need to ensure that the guidance, materials and resources for all the new specifications are of a high quality.
Applied General qualifications inspire young people; they offer an alternative academic pathway to tens of thousands, whose futures are opened up by them. They have an important role to play, alongside A levels and T levels, in ensuring that future generations have the skills that our workforce and our economy need. They should be protected and promoted.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association. He tweets @billwatkin