Why DfE must tread carefully on qualifications reform

Government needs to consider the sometimes conflicting interests of employers, students and others, says David Hughes

David Hughes

A-level alternatives: The government needs to tread carefully on qualifications reform, says Association of Colleges' chief executive, David Hughes

One of the more satisfying – if slightly nerdy – games I play when thinking about speeches and blogs is to do web searches to dig out quotes and statements from the past that still apply. You should try it in lockdown – it can make you laugh, give a wry chuckle or even cry, depending on how the day or week is going.

So here’s a quote I found. It could readily apply to the focus now from this government on post-16, on qualifications and on the system. The question is whether any of you can recognise it – it’s tough, because there are so many like it over at least the past 30 years, and I’ve seen some reports saying much the same from the 19th century. And yes, I do mean that – in the late 1800s.

“…. (I asked for) ….. a framework for qualifications that would enable all our young people to achieve their full potential, which would motivate them to stay in learning after the age of 16, and which would also reduce the burden of assessment on students, their teachers and the examinations system.”

(if you want the answer - see below)


More: Government to cut A-level alternative qualifications

T levels: Keegan says T-level placements challenge can be overcome

Background: Why the battle to save BTECs must be won


The reason I have been looking at all of this is because amidst the urgent and difficult issues thrown up by Covid is a serious set of proposals from the government to reform the vocational and technical qualifications system. We’ve seen several of these in the past 20 years. This time it is the Review of Post-16 Qualifications at level 3: Second Stage Consultation with responses needed by Friday 15 January.

Qualifications reform is a complex issue

The review rightly has great ambitions – a more coherent system, recognised by employers and setting out clear pathways for students to see where their education and training can take them – and the proposals include helpful steps forward, particularly for adult learners. The consultation retains the now familiar ambition to simply have fewer qualifications, which I have always thought gets in the way of the more pertinent issue about wanting qualifications to be part of a more coherent system that can help to drive stronger recognition and prestige.

Our overview of the consultation focuses on five main responses. The first is that we want to urge government to tread carefully in making changes because any reforms need to serve the different interests of students, of society, of employers and of the economy. This is a complex area of policy and affects millions of people every year.

Changes made too quickly can undermine confidence and lead to perverse outcomes. What’s good for an employer might not be so good for a student; what’s needed for the long-term economy might not be what an employer needs now. What is deemed attractive to parents might not be in the best interests of their children. All of this is compounded because decision-making by students and employers is far from perfect, being based, all too often, on lack of knowledge about what is probably an overly-complex set of qualifications.

The second response is that we support the ambition in this consultation. We want to see better recognition of vocational and technical qualifications and higher prestige. Students deserve that, and their progression and achievements following qualification warrant it; it’s just that there has long been too much prejudice in the way of seeing that.

Thirdly, and more specifically, we worry about T levels being out of reach for many current level 3 students. Our initial analysis suggests that the entry-level requirements for the small numbers this year on T levels are more similar to A-level entrance requirements than to existing vocational qualifications at level 3. That’s not wrong, but it does mean more care is needed to understand how to meet the needs of all students at or aspiring to level 3, not just those who can achieve A levels and T levels.

Fourth, we want the government to avoid the trap that qualifications determine outcomes. We know that the progression and destinations of learners at all levels and all ages is not linear and not "tidy". Students study one thing and end up working in something else – you only need to ask your circle of friends how their qualification subjects link to their careers and you’ll see for yourself. There is often not much correlation. In the 16 to 19 phase, we urge government to think about how the study programme, including enrichment, can build confidence, self-esteem, study skills, experience of the workplace and citizenship skills as much as occupationally specific skills. That wider view is what employers tell us they are looking for, rather than just the job-specific.

Finally, there is an important question of implementation that needs care. The recently reformed applied generals/tech levels are currently meeting important needs: progression routes from level 2, successful progression to higher education and employment, social mobility and inclusion. Any changes that undermine or stop funding those qualifications before the new T levels are up and running and before it is clear who is likely and able to succeed on them risks enormous social damage. The equality impact assessment on the review makes it clear that “…enrolments from Asian and black ethnic backgrounds are more likely to be affected by the proposals, as they are particularly strongly represented on qualifications expected to no longer be available in the future”. The risks for them are high if changes are made too quickly.

We saw last week how readily students and their supporters in vocational and technical learning will mobilise, with over 140,000 signing a petition calling for the cancellation of their exams this month. This is a large group of important young people and adults working hard to advance their lives. They do not want their options curtailed with hasty decisions about the qualifications landscape and what is or isn’t funded.

If we take care, analyse options and move cautiously, the ambition of better recognition and higher prestige for vocational and technical qualifications is within our grasp. Too much haste, though, and we could see yet more tinkering and messing about that actually undermines confidence in this all-too-often overlooked and under-valued group of learners.

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

* The quote comes from Charles Clarke, education secretary in 2004, in his statement to the House of Commons explaining what he had asked for from the Tomlinson-led working group, as he presented the Tomlinson report on 14-19 curriculum and qualifications reform in October of that year

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