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Can the ABS achieve parity of esteem between technical and academic education? – Rachel Terry

30 May 2024

By Rachel Terry, Senior Lecturer in TESOL at the University of Huddersfield and national co-chair of Learning and Skills Research Network (LSRN) and a regional convenor for West Yorkshire.

The government consultation has now closed on the proposed reform of 16-19 education under the Advanced British Standard (ABS) banner, and the feedback is being analysed. This is perhaps a good time to reflect on the striking promise made in the initial proposal document to ‘deliver genuine parity of esteem between technical and academic routes.’

Professor Kevin Orr and I published an article questioning the role T Levels might play in raising the value of vocational and technical education. We concluded that without reform of the wider qualification and employment landscape ‘the relative standing of vocational education [was] likely to remain unchanged.’ The question here is whether ABS offers such a level of reform.

The government diagnosis is of a system in which an ‘artificial separation’ is maintained between technical and academic routes, with the technical route being more complex and consequently less well-understood than its academic counterpart. It is envisaged that the continuing cull of vocational qualifications at Level 3 will go some way to address this complexity. The ABS will then provide the structural change needed to create a ‘system that combines technical and academic routes’.

The ABS offers a baccalaureate-style framework within which students will be able to combine technical and academic options across a broader range of subjects, including English and maths. It is worth noting that, according to statistics quoted in the proposal document, 11% of 16 to 17-year-olds currently undertake a mixture of vocational and academic qualifications at Level 3, so this combination of subjects is not entirely new. The ‘illustrative example’ of the ABS suggests that most Level 3 students will choose three major and two minor subjects, alongside obligatory employability, enrichment and pastoral (EEP) hours. A more extensive ‘higher’ option is also proposed which allows students to choose an additional minor subject. This would allow a student to tailor the combination of technical and academic subjects to meet their interests and aspirations.

Yet the consultation document goes on to distinguish between the ABS, for ‘the majority of Level 3 students’, and the ‘ABS (occupational)’ for those who have a clear occupational pathway in mind. The components of the latter reflect the level of specialisation currently offered by T Levels and include an industry placement, an essential feature of the T Level programme. The linguistic marker attached to this pathway (‘occupational’) is an unfortunate sign that the unmarked ABS is the dominant route (see the use of the term ‘lady doctor’ for illumination), and the occupational pathway a less common (lower value?) alternative.

So, will the ABS framework be enough in itself to achieve parity? Our analysis of the potential of T Levels to raise the value of vocational education drew on the Marxist concepts of ‘use value’ and ‘exchange value’ to help us understand what was going on. These concepts allowed us to distinguish between the intrinsic value of a qualification (the uses to which it may be put, such as enabling a student to complete a specific task or solve a difficult problem) and the extrinsic value accorded to it when exchanged for something else (such as entry to university or employment). This revealed how the many positives associated with T Levels – such as their strong vocational content and extensive placement – are not sufficient in themselves to secure their place in the market for post-16 qualifications. Other factors – such as their perceived relationship to A Levels and their ability to afford entry to university – are at least as pertinent in determining their value.

This is where the ABS potentially falls down. The current dominance of higher education as the destination of choice even within vocational subject areas makes universities, rather than employers, the arbiter of the value of new qualifications. Students, parents, and Level 3 providers will need to be sure that the different ABS pathways lead to their desired outcomes in terms of university admissions. As with T Levels, the stated purpose of the ‘occupational’ route in terms of providing entry to technical employment may be undermined by the lack of availability of jobs at this level. A student completing the ABS with a specialism in early years, for example, is much more likely to progress to a degree than to opt for employment on the minimum wage.

There are also structural issues within post-16 education that work against parity of esteem. Although colleges offer the full spread of post-16 qualifications, these are not evenly distributed between providers. Sixth form colleges and schools are more closely associated with A Levels, while some FE colleges offer only vocational qualifications. As the AoC discussion paper responding to the ABS consultation notes, ABS will require collaboration where there has previously been competition. In practice, it is likely that colleges will remain best equipped to offer the ‘ABS (occupational)’, while schools may seek to retain their position in the market by focusing on academic options. Given the pay gap between teachers in these sectors, this is likely to remain an uneven field of play.

Back in 2016, the Skills Plan deliberately side-stepped the question of parity of esteem in relation to T Levels, arguing instead for ‘a distinctive, prestigious, high-quality offer in its own right.’ This was wishful thinking, to some extent, as the prestige of a qualification is always dependent on factors beyond its inherent worth. But the focus on achieving parity of esteem through qualification reform is flawed in other ways too. It encourages the standardisation of approaches to assessment – to achieve the ‘rigour’ associated with A Levels - that distorts the purposes of vocational education and places the focus on the completed programme of study rather than on its content.

Instead of asking whether the ABS can achieve parity of esteem, therefore, it is more pertinent to ask whether it can achieve a curriculum that engages students and helps them to achieve their aspirations, whatever these might be.