Ofqual’s turn to raise T-level worries

The body that regulates qualifications in England has added its voice to fears about the government’s plans for T-levels.

Ofqual is worried about proposals to use a single awarding organisation per qualification, and the FE sector’s ability to cope with yet another set of significant reforms.

It made its concerns known in its response to the Department for Education’s consultation on the new technical qualifications, which was published today.

Under current T-level plans, technical qualifications at levels two and three will be offered and awarded by a single body or consortium, under “a licence covering a fixed period of time following an open competition”.

Ofqual said it has a “statutory objective relating to efficiency of the market” and is, to some degree, “neutral” about whether one or many providers offer particular qualifications.

However, “we have advised on, and government is aware of and managing, the risks related to the single provider model”, it said in its submission.

We have advised on the risks related to the single provider model

“We will take a close interest in transitional arrangements between current qualifications and the T-level programme to ensure that learners are not disadvantaged and there is sufficient clarity about the qualification system.

“We will also look carefully at the impact of this reform programme on the wider regulated qualification market with an aim of mitigating and managing, as far as possible, any resulting systemic risks.”

The single-provider model is a controversial component of T-levels, which are due to be rolled out from 2020.

Research conducted by Frontier Economics in 2017, on behalf of the DfE, concluded that limiting access to a single AO may create a “risk of system failure” both in the short- and long-term.

It warned that if a single AO fails, it may be that no alternative AO can step in.

Ofqual’s response to the consultation also mentions the scale of reform FE is currently undergoing, which it said is placing “significant loading on the sector”.

“We think it is also important to recognise the potential scale of reform we are embarking on and the implications for the system,” the regulator said.

“The reform of the apprenticeship system is in train, but there is still much to do. We are also midway through the reform of English and maths functional skills qualifications that will roll out in 2019. And 2018 will see the first awarding of applied general and tech level qualifications that changed substantially in 2016 to meet government performance table requirements.”

Against this backdrop, the government wants to review level two, four and five qualifications, in addition to the introduction of T-levels.

Any subsequent reform would place significant loading on the sector

The “wide-ranging implications” of these reviews will “clearly need careful consideration”, Ofqual said.

“Any subsequent reform would place significant loading on the sector. This is not just an issue for colleges and schools; it also has implications for the capacity of the organisations leading the programmes.”

Ofqual also included a few veiled digs in its responses.

“It seems difficult to assign ‘ensuring comparable standards of performance’ and ‘supporting fair access’ as roles for a qualification,” it said about the qualification’s purpose. “We think that broader issues such as these are more appropriately addressed in the delivery of the qualifications.”

In terms of schedule, Ofqual said its “experience of reform suggests that the T-level development timeline remains very taut, even against a 2020 timeline”.

And regarding “grade comparability”, the regulator stated: “For us to maintain grade standards effectively, it will be important for us to understand in more detail the aspirations for qualification grade comparability. We believe that it is our duty as the statutory regulator to consider them carefully before they are approved for delivery.

“The Institute for Apprenticeships has the statutory responsibility for approving the qualifications and Ofqual would need assurance that they could be delivered in compliance with our regulatory framework.”

The T-levels consultation closed on February 8.

It sought opinions on the planned implementation of the new post-16 technical qualifications, which the government claims will set a new “gold standard” in training, set to emerge from 2020.

FE Week previously asked providers’ opinions on what we see as the six key questions in the consultation. Answers from the AoC, Association of Employment and Learning Providers, the Learning and Work Institute, and the Federation of Small Businesses can be read here.