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Qualification reform – keeping the eye on the ball - Catherine Sezen

9th November 2023

By Cath Sezen, director of education policy at the Association of Colleges

As we had expected, last week’s King’s Speech paved the way for a white paper on the much-discussed Advanced British Standard, first announced by the prime minister in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference.

The two key principles of the Advanced British Standard (ABS) are to be applauded; more taught hours for all 16 to 18-year-olds and greater breadth will bring the upper secondary phase more in line with the offer in other counties. English and maths for all, while causing many in colleges, where thousands of students are already retaking English and maths GCSEs and Functional Skills, to take a sharp intake of breath (Staffing! Offer? Timetabling! Attendance!), is also in line with other countries.

There are of course many challenges to bear in mind. The ABS announcement has attracted a lot of attention outside the education sector. While the proposals clearly state that ABS will be based on T Levels and A Levels as the “backbone” of the new reform, colleges have already encountered questions from parents at open evenings about whether T Level is a good option now or next year if it will no longer exist as a distinct qualification in the future.

Is this truly an option for all 16 to 18-year-olds? How do we ensure ABS offers better opportunities for the 6% of 16 to 18-year-olds who are currently not in education, employment or training (NEET), is taken up by the independent sector, where 6% of this age group currently study, and helps to promote more young people into apprenticeships which have dropped over the past decade from 126,000 in 2015 to 77,500 in 2021/22[1]. What about young carers and those who need to work to support their families? Additional hours will have to be carefully thought through. Appropriate financial support might help, but won’t answer all the questions here.

And what about adults, especially young adults? Many colleges deliver courses for both this age group and 19+ students together. How will this work in ABS which is aimed at 16 to 18-year-olds?

It is good to note that the additional hours will be extended to those studying at Level 2 and below and who arguably need the increased investment the most. It is crucial that this study programme offers opportunities for progression and to step off into work, a supported internship or an apprenticeship. However, the programme also needs to provide opportunities to study subjects which engage the individual student; personal and social development; citizenship; employability. Most importantly it needs to be developed with the sector that knows these young people the best; the FE sector.

Level 2 and below study leads to questions about pathways into post 16. The challenges students and colleges face with English and maths retakes are well-rehearsed. However, young people don’t suddenly fail to achieve English and maths at grade 4 and above at 16. Every year this accounts for around 40% of students who sit year 11 GCSEs. Addressing this challenge cannot only sit with colleges as it does now. How are students supported through Key Stage 3 and 4 to address the gaps? Is GCSE the most appropriate vehicle to track progress as well as achievement? Do we need to wait 10 years to have this challenge addressed?

There also has be greater attention paid to stepping off points and progression from the 16 to 18 phase. Progression and career planning needs to start earlier and be supported by robust transition information for those students who move to college.

There is a lot of focus on English and maths, but not the same emphasis on digital skills and how these three key subjects interact with each other and other subjects across the offer. With so much in the news about artificial intelligence it is curious that this doesn’t play a greater part in the initial guidance.

ABS also begs the question of the best strategy for the local education ecosystem. Many school sixth forms only deliver A Levels. Around 80 colleges don’t deliver A Levels so the opportunities to combine academic and technical options could be limited or there could be multiple organisations in one area offering the same offer. Perhaps greater area planning is needed.

Increased hours mean increased staffing. Colleges are already struggling to recruit staff, so plans to increase hours mean plans to make post 16 teaching more attractive; those plans need to start now.

However, the greatest challenge of all is that colleges are already at the beginning of a major reform programme. All qualifications, with the exception of GCSE English and maths and Functional Skills are already going through a period of reform. It is a reform programme which is not without its own huge questions. Add to this the potential of a change of direction from a new government at some point in the next 14 months. The Labour Party is committed to T Levels. In government, they ‘will review the diversity of options at Level 3 before making changes’[2]. It is incredibly difficult for college to know what to plan for, though clearly defunding will have already started in September 2024 if a change of direction comes in late 2024 or early 2025.

If colleges felt that T Levels would meet the needs of all current Level 3 students, they would be enrolling all students on to them. They are not. The AoC enrolment survey indicates that T Level enrolments are below target across the board. There are grave concerns about whether all the students who currently access Level 3 Vocational Technical Qualifications (VTQs) will thrive on T Levels which have very broad knowledge content and are heavily assessed. We have to remember that 60% of students currently on L3 VTQs study Level 2 and in some cases Level 1 before they embark on Level 3 as they don’t have 5 GCSEs including English and maths when they leave school. The achievement rates for English and maths retakes, around 20% for maths and 30% for English since the introduction of the Condition of Funding mean that the numbers of students who will be able to progress to T level at 17, after just one year of the T level Foundation Programme, will be limited. And yet those students make up the majority of the current cohort.

Colleges need clarity regarding what qualifications will be available in 2025 and beyond. The details of the new Technical Occupational Qualifications (TOQs) at Level 3 and Level 2 are patchy. Unlike T levels, where Government dictates the offer and awarding organisations bid to deliver under a single licence, TOQs require awarding organisations to submit qualifications based on occupational standards[3]. This is a long and complex process; introduction of new qualifications and defunding take place in staged phases. There is a little more clarity for Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs); we know which subjects. However, It is still not clear which qualifications (size and funding) will be available when and when existing options will be defunded. The same questions about options for adults are as true now as they will be for the ABS.

The anticipated demand for industry placements for those who are able to study T Levels is significant. We estimate it will be over 60,000 placements a year. The placement is the usp of the T level and many current students have progressed to jobs with their placement employer. However, colleges are already struggling to find placements, especially in digital, for the current numbers of students; remember just under 3 and a half thousand students completed last year.

What we need for certain now, not possibly in 2033 is:

  • A clearly defined cross party approach to skills, and a pause on defunding until that approach is agreed.
  • Tweaks to T Level content and assessment to make them accessible for a wider range of students
  • An employer engagement strategy to encourage or even require more employers to engage in providing placements and flexible approaches in sectors where remote working is now more popular eg digital.

While we support the ABS plans for a broader study programme, we urge government to keep its eye on the current ball in play. The experience of students over the next 8 to 10 years is just as important as those joining college in 2033.

[1] Apprenticeship statistics for England - House of Commons Library (parliament.uk)

[2] Mission-breaking-down-barriers.pdf (labour.org.uk)

[3] Occupational Maps: Institute for Apprenticeships & Technical Education

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.