The challenges facing the FE and skills sector are not just being experienced by providers — awarding organisations (AOs) have also got to ensure their offer is in line with reforms, explains Gemma Gathercole.

The old saying goes that with great power comes great responsibility. The education and skills system holds great power to transform lives, to teach, to learn and to support the development of skills that leads to greater success for the individual and the economy as a whole. But if we look at our education and skills system at the moment there is another great we must consider, challenge.

Providers should be looking for qualifications that support their activity but that give enough flexibility to respond to local needs

From stories, headlines and discussions about the skills shortage, to the productivity crisis and to criticisms of programmes that do not lead young people into sustained employment, we face a great challenge.

In her seminal review of vocational education, Professor Lady Alison Wolf wrote about the importance of good quality vocational programmes, but she also challenged us: “Alongside the many young people for whom vocational education offers a successful pathway into employment or higher education, there are hundreds of thousands for whom it does not.”

From that report stems a reform programme, an agenda that has been set for vocational qualifications in order for them to receive recognition in the performance tables. This year sees the first culmination of that reform for level three qualifications.

As AOs, we had an opportunity to tinker around the edges to reform our qualifications so they would meet the new rules. But with challenge comes opportunity and we chose opportunity.

For teaching from September 2016, FE colleges will have new ranges of qualifications to choose from. At OCR, we have launched our new range of Cambridge Technicals qualifications. We have not just tinkered around the edges. The choices that face providers for teaching in September are ones that provide an opportunity for you to review your provision and ensure that you are providing courses that meet the needs of young people and also meet the expectations of higher education and employers.

A key issue presented to us by both higher education providers and employers was size. Yes, in this instance, size does matter.

Our new qualifications are available in four sizes, the maximum guided-learning hours (GLH) of the new technicals is 720. Why? Existing ‘blockbuster’ 1080 GLH qualifications can steer 16-year-olds to specialise too early, to not develop the breadth of skills they need for their next step in learning or work and, more critically, limit future options.

Our research told us that students progressing to higher education with a single subject blockbuster qualification often lack some of the basic self-management, extended writing and study skills that are required in higher education. So keeping the focus on smaller qualifications that can be combined in a study programme with other complementary provision is a crucial element of our design.

Both AOs and providers are being challenged to have greater links with employers, whether through employer-led apprenticeships or effective employer engagement. This is a challenge we face together.

Providers should be looking for qualifications that support their activity but that give enough flexibility to respond to local needs.

We see employer collaboration as more than just shaping the content. It has extended to resource development and support through the lifetime of these qualifications.

With much talk of skills gaps, identifying and hitting the right target is key. AOs need to reach out to others to get this right in
our vocational qualifications now more than ever and in doing so we can support your reforms too.

As recently as July, the Treasury’s Fixing the Foundations report referred to UK Commission for Employment and Skills research that, by 2020, the UK’s ranking for intermediate technical and professional skills — linked to level three qualifications — will fall to 28th out of 33 Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries. We need to get these qualifications right more than ever.