What to do at level 2? A reflection on Ofsted's Level 2 Study Programme research

By Catherine Sezen on

What makes the ideal Level 2 study programme? With all the media interest around Amanda Spielman’s comments about destinations for students on level 2 Arts and Media programmes (interesting that the BBC picked up on that!) it may be easy to overlook other key messages and good practice in Ofsted's Level 2 Study Programmes research.

Let's first take a look at the chief inspector’s comment about poor transitions into work for students on creative courses. Interestingly the most recent Employer Skills Survey indicates employment in arts and other services as being greater than in construction, agriculture and financial services. The T Level occupational maps outline a vast array of creative career opportunities such as graphic designer, broadcast production assistant and live event either. And no one is saying that universities shouldn't offer degree programmes in arts and media.

The report notes that art and media don't have good local prospects for employment, but should students on technical/vocational programmes be limited to their local area? Again we don't suggest that students on A Levels should only study what meets their local job market.

However, it shouldn't be overlooked that Ofsted’s research crucially shines a light on what it acknowledges can be a forgotten cohort. There are approximately 900,000 students on Level 3 Study programmes. By comparison the 170,000 students studying at Level 2 are a minority, but as the research so rightly points out, these are the students with the greatest ‘unrealised potential’ and the vast majority study in general further education colleges (GFEs).

It is encouraging to see a whole section on the student profile. Unsurprisingly to those of us who work with this cohort, the paper identifies that the students are not homogenous; some are vocationally focused, others are not. It recognises that some students will have a good set of GCSEs, others will not. Construction trades for example require you to start at level 1 or 2 even if you have a phd (great to see that in writing!). In the trades it is the aptitude which is vital. It is also made clear that Level 2 students will have a variety of previous learning experience, much of it not having been very positive. Conversely, students who were interviewed about their Level 2 experience at college praised the greater independence, freedom and being treated like an adult.

This emphasis on the Level 2 profile and needs also comes at an opportune time to inform Department of Education (DfE) thinking on the transition offer which will have as much, if not more, impact on many young people and colleges than T Levels.

The research recommendations are based around a broad study programme which has elements of a vocational hook or experience of more than one vocational option to help students make decisions about a career plan. At the same time there should be an emphasis on the core skills of literacy and numeracy (more on that later) and employability or soft skills.

The report identifies three key points of good practice: colleges which work intensively with local employers; colleges which recognise the importance of personal and social development and employability skills while offering the opportunity for students to experience success; colleges which focus on student destination.

These key themes are underpinned by recommendations that study programmes should not be restricted by a focus on qualification outcomes. Employer involvement is key not only for relevant work experience and employer feedback, but also to design and implement the curriculum offer; colleges should engage employers beyond work experience and placements; that destinations data should be published and that there should be greater emphasis on feedback to students to build their self confidence and self-esteem. There are further recommendations that colleges should do more to promote progression to apprenticeships as well as full time level 3 programmes. Colleges should also do more to support industrial updating.

It is interesting that the report states that their researchers didn’t find any example of a college prospectus which covers the opportunities afforded by the whole study programme rather than just the main vocational programme. I would like to suggest that they take a look at the example of the Level 2 Ambitions Programme that Nelson and Colne College is gradually shaping to meet the wider needs of this cohort. All level 2 students are supported to develop key personal skills such as communication, confidence, resilience, employability and presentation skills. There are lots of opportunities for trips, visits, guest speakers, mentoring and work experience. ‘This is an exciting programme, designed to help you get ready for your next step.’

There is another key recommendation which says that colleges should review their entry requirements for both Level 2 and Level 3 to ensure that as many students as possible are given the opportunity to embark upon a level 3. There is a suggestion that colleges might be risk adverse, but I would respectfully note that this is a more nuanced picture, influenced by English and maths resits. A full Level 3 programme with English and maths is, in the majority of cases, setting a student up to fail and, as Ofsted note themselves, some trade courses require you to start at the beginning, so some students will have higher grades than others.

The research is critical of DfE’s GCSE English and maths resit policy which hasn’t led to huge increases in the numbers of students achieving these qualifications and recommends a review of the evidence. It does however note that eight out of ten students felt that their English and maths skills had improved whether or not they had achieved a GCSE. Ofsted rightly points out that employers are looking for effective literacy and numeracy rather than GCSEs (though many employers of course request GCSEs as a proxy for literacy and numeracy), something colleges and AoC have been saying for a while, but pleasing to see it here.

There is also some criticism of school-based information advice and guidance (IAG) which doesn’t always accurately promote post 16 opportunities which in turn can lead to students dropping out. We all know the importance of good school/college relationships, but in practice when IAG is not always impartial and colleges are still denied access to all or many students in some schools, despite the Baker Clause, this could feel slightly naive in the face of the challenge.

Overall though, this is a very timely piece of research which recognises how crucial it is to get it right for this cohort. In a nutshell and in line with the proposed Education Inspection Framework the ideal Level 2 Study Programme should be informed by industry and based on honesty and integrity in recruitment (intent); be based on study programmes which focus on skills wider than the vocational qualification (implementation); have at its heart a destination led approach (impact).

Find out more about the framework and its focus on Curriculum at the AoC Ofsted Conference next week in Birmingham.