The government will cut funding to an as-yet-unknown number of level three qualifications to curb the number of courses that cannot prove they lead to good quality jobs or HE courses.
Ministers have announced plans to remove funding from post-16 courses, such as many BTecs, that are of “poor quality” or duplicate skills or content provided in apprenticeships and T-Level and A-level qualifications, which “will become the main progression options after GCSEs” under the new system.
The initiative, set to begin in 2023 and complete by 2025, will offer what ministers promise are “clearer qualification and training routes” for young people after key stage four.
The Department for Education (DfE) has not set how it will decide which qualifications to retain but plans to divide post-16 options into “two clearly defined paths” of academic and technical courses.
Students offered choice between academic and technical post-16 qualifications
No figure is yet known for how many courses face the axe – but the Association of Colleges warned: “Hastily scrapping hundreds of level three qualifications, starting in 2023, risks leaving some of the most disadvantaged young people without routes into meaningful work”.
Some different courses would be on offer for creative and performing arts, but others would need to “demonstrate why there is a real need for them”, by proving they lead to good jobs or HE courses, the DfE said.
The department said over 3,000 level three qualifications had approval for its funding – and contrasted this state of affairs to Germany and Switzerland, frequently cited as global leaders in post-16 education by ministers, which both have fewer than 500 technical qualifications in total. By comparison, England has nearly as many courses in just engineering and building and construction alone. This variation had allowed poor-quality courses to proliferate, ministers say.
One hundred and sixty duplicate qualifications lost funding from August 2020 – with funding removed a year later from a further 2,200 not taken by anyone. There has been a moratorium on additional qualifications at level three and below while the government battles to cut the headline figure.
The government wants employer involvement in course design once the new system phases in from 2023, “so they deliver the skilled workforce businesses and the economy need to build back better from the pandemic”.
Education secretary Gavin Williamson said: “As we recover from the pandemic, there can be no room in our education system for second rate qualifications.
“Great qualifications are essential to helping everyone – no matter their age or background – to get good jobs and realise their ambitions.
“These reforms will simplify and streamline the current system, ensuring that whatever qualification a young person or an adult chooses they can be confident that it will be high-quality and will lead to good outcomes.”
While we welcome the government’s aim to raise standards in further education, we have always warned that policy makers should not lose sight of what is working well already
– Cindy Rampersaud, Pearson
Sector body warns against government’s ‘strong-armed’ approach
A government consultation, which received nearly 550 responses from the education and charitable sectors, found some significant misgivings about its approach. While most agreed with the principle of a “clearly defined purpose” for each qualification, respondents felt this might mean tying each course tightly to a single outcome, like a specific job. Doing this could disadvantage young people who do not know what career to pursue, respondents feared. Improved careers advice would address this issue, the DfE said in its consultation response.
The Association of Colleges called for the government to slow down its “strong-armed approach”, warning that the “hasty scrapping” of hundreds of level three qualifications risked “leaving some of the most disadvantaged young people without routes into meaningful work”.
Disadvantaged students will be “disproportionately affected”, the AoC continued, because a higher proportion of Black and Minority Ethnic students and educationally and economically disadvantaged students take these under-threat courses. It also warned that the speed of the changes risked “untested qualifications” flooding the system. The organisation said that finding industry placements was difficult, particularly in economic cold spots, which compounded the problem of developing enough T-level courses. Even if enough T-levels could be approved by 2023, as many as one in five students would not be eligible to take them because they require at least a grade four in English and maths, the AoC added. David Hughes, chief executive of the AoC wants time for employers, students, schools and colleges to learn more about T-levels.
Cindy Rampersaud, senior vice president for BTec and apprenticeships at Pearson, said: “While we welcome the government’s aim to raise standards in further education, we have always warned that policy makers should not lose sight of what is working well already – namely existing high-quality qualifications that are respected by employers, universities and students alike, be they BTecs or other vocational qualifications.
“It is good to see that some of this feedback, from us and a wealth of other respondents to the consultation, has been taken into consideration. We will take the time now to review the government’s response to the consultation in full and understand the implications for BTec students and colleges.”
The new system will ultimately create a binary divide between academic and technical skills, which is not reflective of higher education; the future of work or indeed the skills that employers are demanding of the future workforce – Vanessa Wilson, University Alliance
Responding to the government’s announcements, University Alliance CEO Vanessa Wilson said:
“As the voice of professional and technical universities, we are concerned by proposals to limit the range and availability of technical qualifications and pathways. The government appears to be rushing headlong into creating a new system that will not meet the needs of all students and risks limiting student choice and flexibility.
“Many of the existing qualifications that will likely have funding removed offer a valuable and flexible pathway for students, including those from disadvantaged backgrounds, to access academic, vocational, professional and technical degrees. Whilst we are fully supportive of the new T-Levels, they should not come at the expense of choice and the flexibility to blend academic, vocational and technical qualifications.
“The new system will ultimately create a binary divide between academic and technical skills, which is not reflective of higher education; the future of work or indeed the skills that employers are demanding of the future workforce. University Alliance degrees deliver a high quality blend of academic, professional and technical provision, and a seamless pathway between vocational and further study.”