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Qualification reform: a pause and review must be announced by 1 August

21 June 2024

Pause and review

The next government must announce a pause and review of qualification reform by 1 August, the Association of College has said today.

Following a rapid review, the Department for Education must provide a plan for stability by January 2025, while also conducting a wider, long-term review of the curriculum and assessment, it added.

In a new report published today, AoC has set out key principles that must be adopted by policymakers while they conduct both reviews.

In 2016, the DfE announced reform of qualifications in England, and in 2020, began the roll out of T Levels while defunding other vocational and technical qualifications that overlapped with them.

This has met with widespread dismay because of the potential impact on thousands of learners. Stakeholders across the sector – colleges, universities, students, businesses and other membership organisations – have long been calling for a rethink and an immediate pause in the reforms to allow the time to ensure curriculum and qualifications work for all learners.

While colleges are working hard to enrol students onto T Levels, they are not suitable for every learner and are not currently available to adults. AoC has been clear: without swift intervention, thousands of young people and adults will not have post-16 options when reforms unfold between 2024 and 2028.

In the paper, AoC sets out how an immediate suspension of defunding and a rapid review should work in practice and highlights two skills shortage sectors due to be most impacted by the current plans.

AoC says that the rapid review should:

  • report by January 2025 at the latest with a plan to provide stability for the next three years
  • be on a subject-by-subject basis
  • be mindful of the range of student starting points (entry to Level 3) and intended destinations and aspirations
  • address the whole suite of qualifications for this age group rather than simply focusing on the role of T Levels, but also continue to hone T Level content, assessment and placements 
  • only defund qualifications where a new qualification is effective, fully deliverable and clearly replaces an existing one
  • have input from key stakeholders including students, schools, colleges, higher education institutions, awarding organisations and employers
  • keep key stakeholders updated on progress and early conclusions.

A wider, long-term curriculum review should:

  • consider all post-16 qualifications in the round
  • address the English and maths condition of funding
  • improve transitions at age 16 and at age 18 and 19
  • support wider student experience because of the role enrichment activities play in helping build confidence, self-esteem, resilience and a wider set of skills
  • include apprenticeships within 16 to 18 study programmes because the participation age to 18 requires a more holistic consideration of every young person, whatever route they take
  • consider the importance of a variety of assessment methods because of the need to reflect diversity in students and in curriculum and subjects
  • reflect the rapidly changing world and jobs by embracing new technology in qualification design and assessment
  • recognise that much of the feedback from employers calls for young people to develop a set of ‘essential’ skills that the current system is not focused on.

Cath Sezen, Director of Education Policy at Association of Colleges, said: “We have been clear from the very start of these reforms that if implemented as planned, thousands of young people and adults will struggle to study at Level 3, and will be at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training (NEET).

“While there is broad consensus that an immediate pause and review is desperately needed, it is a complex picture, and timing is critical.

“This paper sets out how a pause and review can happen in reality, while having a minimal impact on students and colleges. We need careful review of the role that T Levels play in the system, including on the content, assessment and industry placements. Changes now could mean more students being able to take a T Level in the future. ‘

“If the future government wishes to undertake a full curriculum review of post-16 education, we cannot allow the same mistakes to be made. It must look at secondary education and the transition to college and align with a vision for apprentices and adults.

‘’Any decisions about qualifications and curriculum must be mindful that students begin their journey at college from a range of starting points and have different aspirations. It is vital that colleges, which all have many years of experience of supporting students to achieve their best, are included in decision making from the start.’’

A summary can be read here, and the full report can be read here.

Case studies

Electrical installation
Students currently wanting to study electrical installation often complete a one-year Level 3 electrical installation course at college, alongside resitting English and maths GCSE if needed, before progressing on to an apprenticeship which is needed to enter the sector. This apprenticeship could be completed in less than a year.

This Level 3 course is due to be defunded, with students encouraged to study a Level 3 T Level in Building Services Engineering. There are several concerns with this: for students who need to resit GCSE English and maths it would result in a very full study programme, the T Level doesn’t focus on electrical installation specifically, and it is a two-year course rather than the current one-year career specific programme. The T Level is not available to adults.

This means that those students aged 16-18 who want to go into electrical installation will need to study the T Level and then go onto do the Level 3 electrical installation and maintenace apprenticeship.

The T Level also requires considerably more teaching time than the current qualifications. Colleges are already finding it difficult to recruit electrical teaching posts, and a large two-year programme makes this challenge even greater.

Ultimately, then, these reforms will impact the number of qualified electricians entering the workforce.

Health and social care
The NHS faces a major staffing shortage, projected to be between 260,000 and 360,000 by 2036. Colleges play a vital role in training healthcare professionals, but the current reforms would disrupt this pipeline.

Traditionally, colleges offered broad Level 3 qualifications in health and social care, allowing students to progress to various professions. In 2023/24 there are 27,235 enrolments on Level 3 health and social care qualifications.

However, the new qualifications decouple health and social care, with a T Level in health and a Technical Occupational Qualification (TOQ) in social care available from 2026. In 2023/24, there were 3,266 enrolments on the T Level in health.

This reform creates several challenges.

  • Accessibility: Students who have not gained their Grade 4 in English and/or maths will struggle to resit these exams alongside a very full T Level programme.
  • Placements: The sheer number of students needing placements for T levels could overwhelm healthcare providers already facing capacity issues.
  • Disruption: The health and social care qualifications are being defunded at different times by different awarding bodies, which creates confusion and makes it harder for colleges to plan effectively. The social care TOQs are not introduced until 2026, which would leave a gap for social care qualifications in 2025.
  • Limited adult learning: There are currently 683 19+ students on the Level 3 health and social qualifications, who would not have access to the T Level in health. These students will likely no longer have the chance to retrain or upskill.

These issues could leave thousands without access to Level 3 qualifications in health or social care by 2025, significantly impacting the NHS workforce pipeline.

A full A-Z of further education can be found here, and a cheat sheet of key policies and issues in FE can be found here.