Finally, we have a meaningful consultation on post-16 qualifications. Ever since the Department for Education announced that T levels were going to be a top priority, the questions about what would happen to "other" existing qualifications at the same level have remained unanswered. There has also been much speculation about how the introduction of an undefined transition year for T levels would impact on existing qualifications at level 2 and below.
This matters to hundreds of thousands of young people and to the institutions who support them – schools, colleges and universities. That’s why there has been so much nervousness over the past couple of years about what the DfE intends to do. Now the consultation is out, that nervousness has turned into alarm for many, and for understandable reasons.
Read more: DfE launches crackdown on post-16 courses
Schools, colleges and universities all rely on existing qualifications. They know them well, they understand how they work, who they are suitable for, what progression routes open up with them and what the outcomes look like. Any changes to the existing qualifications will be unsettling. So the consultation was always going to be contentious. But it is a consultation and, if it is meaningful, then the DfE should want to listen to the considered responses.
It’s clear that the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below raises fundamental questions about England’s future qualification landscape. Now that A levels have been reformed and T levels are launching soon, the stage is set for the new "academic and technical" world ushered in by the Skills Plan. The DfE’s aspiration is to streamline the number of qualifications and create a more coherent system that can inspire confidence, stretch students and support their employment and personal development.
The review suggests four key tests to determine which post-16 qualifications can be offered: purpose, necessity, progression and quality. The idea is that every qualification should have a clear role, based on the demand for the knowledge and skills it develops, and should meet defined educational or skills needs. It should also prepare for progression: offering what the review describes as “a clear line of sight to higher levels of study, technical excellence and/or skilled employment”.
Making things simpler
The four principles are sensible and it is always hard to argue with an aspiration for making things simpler, but there’s the rub – the world of work is not simple, and any system designed to prepare people for work will have to reflect that diversity and complexity. There is also an inherent tension here between what is right for the student and what is needed by the employer.
Put simply, there is a clear case for students to have broader educational experiences to prepare them for a rapidly changing working world; and yet employers often push for narrower and more job-specific qualifications that meet their immediate recruitment and skills needs. In an employer-led environment, expect more not fewer qualifications. Navigating that tension will be an important part of the DfE’s job over the coming months and years.
For the DfE, the streamlined future consists of either academic or technical qualifications, seemingly permitting little or no space for applied general qualifications (AGQs), such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals, which support hundreds of thousands of students. These qualifications are currently undergoing a major change themselves, have been highly valued by employers and higher education providers (over 25 per cent of HE entrants get there via an AGQ) and are popular with students. They have also contributed enormously to increasing participation, achievement and progression levels for many students, notably from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Simply stopping funding for AGQs could have profound consequences, so it is reassuring that the consultation makes clear that valued qualifications will be able to continue. That should offer a welcome lifeline to AGQs in areas for which no T levels are currently planned, such as sport, performing arts, travel and tourism, and public services.
Where there are T levels planned, however, it looks more than likely that the DfE will want to encourage take-up by stopping funding for existing qualifications. That sounds simple, but the new T levels may be unachievable by many young people given the academic assessment, the need for a sector-specific industry placement and the high contact hours (restricting time, for instance, for part-time work alongside study). T levels may also be inaccessible for adults who will still want valued and recognised qualifications to achieve.
Profound and positive outcomes
The other vital question raised in the consultation is how the system will serve the large number of students (around 40 per cent of the cohort) who, at age 16, are not yet ready for level 3 study. These students need high-quality options to develop their skills, confidence and self-esteem, and opportunities to find the right and most motivating route for progression into work or further learning. Getting this area right could have profound and positive outcomes for hundreds of thousands of young people over their lives.
The government is proposing a "transition framework" that would include English, maths, work experience, work-related study, technical skills, guidance and support. This is urgent work that colleges are expert at, with many great examples of where innovative and creative curriculums are working well that the DfE can learn from.
We cannot be complacent about the system as it is, but any proposals need to recognise what works now, the diversity of students’ needs and aspirations, the tensions between employer and student needs and the impact on institutions. I am sure that politicians recognise the long history of reforms in this space that have not been effective and will take appropriate care with their next steps. As a sector, we need to help them to achieve that.
David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges