More than 1,000 learners that failed their courses last year are now being told they’ve passed.
Under the previous widely accepted interpretation of rules for reformed level three applied general and tech level qualifications, introduced for teaching from 2016, learners had to pass all their externally-assessed exams to achieve their qualifications.
But that changed after Ofqual wrote to awarding organisations last month to ask them to create a “safety net” for learners that had narrowly failed one or more of their exams.
Awarding giant Pearson, whose BTECs account for the majority of the qualifications affected, has confirmed to FE Week that 1,300 learners at 270 of its centres have been affected by the rule change.
“Some learners who sat externally-assessed units in 2017 and 2018 are now eligible to achieve a qualification when previously they weren’t,” a spokesperson said.
“We have communicated with all providers about this change to ensure that all learners receive the qualification they deserve.”
This includes learners on the two-year courses, who are due to complete their qualifications this summer, as well as those on one-year foundation courses who finished their courses last summer.
FE Week understands that learners could be affected from other awarding organisations, including OCR, AQA and City and Guilds also offer their own versions of the qualifications.
The DfE has said this is not due to a change in the rules, but how they should be interpreted.
“We have always been clear with awarding organisations about the standard that is expected and nothing has changed. We recently reiterated the guidance to ensure consistency,” a spokesperson said.
“It is vital that qualifications remain challenging and rigorous, and we work closely with Ofqual to make sure that standards remain high.”
An assessment expert, who did not want to be named, told FE Week that the change would affect both providers and learners.
Providers’ achievement rates would have been affected by learners that failed under the previous rules, and for some the hit could have been “quite substantial”.
But he said the biggest impact was likely to be on the learners that have “lost out” on a year of education or training, having previously believed they’d failed.
Some would have dropped out of their courses after the first year, or are now needlessly repeating a year. Others would have been unable to progress onto other forms of training, including apprenticeships, he said.
According to Ofqual statistics, there were 144,855 tech level certificates issued in 2016/17, and 222,445 applied general certificates.
Pearson, through its BTECs, has by far the largest share of both: 79,970, or 55 per cent, of the tech levels and 180,225 or 81 per cent of the applied general.
Other awarding bodies to offer them include University of the Arts London and OCR, which had a nine and six per cent share respectively of applied general qualifications in 2016/17.
And City and Guilds was the second largest awarding body for tech levels, responsible for 31,945 or 22 per cent of certificates.
An Ofqual spokesperson said it was “pleased” that Pearson had applied the change to BTECs “to address the unfair disadvantage for students, in comparison with those taking older versions of the qualifications or A levels, when applying for university places”.
“In weighing up the need to make changes to their qualifications, we asked awarding organisations to ensure appropriate standards were achieved in these new qualifications.”
What is the rule change?
Reformed level three applied general and tech level qualifications, introduced for teaching from September 2016, include a proportion of external assessment, or timetabled exams.
Under the original interpretation of the rules, learners on these courses had to pass all of these exams in order to achieve their qualification.
This meant, for example, that a learner who gained a distinction in three out of four exams but who narrowly failed one exam would fail the overall qualification.
In a letter to all awarding organisations offering applied general and tech level qualifications, sent last month, Ofqual said it was “concerned that this may impact the validity of grades issued and is not fair to students who narrowly miss passing one or more units”, and it risked putting learners at a disadvantage compared with A-level students and those with older versions of the qualifications.
It asked the AOs to “provide a safety net for students who narrowly pass on one or more externally-assessed units” on these courses.
This would mean that a learner could still pass the overall qualification without having to pass all the externally-assessed exams – bringing them in line with other level three qualifications such as A-levels.