Advanced British Standard consultation: What you need to know

Ministers seek views on plans for new 16 to 19 qualification

Ministers seek views on plans for new 16 to 19 qualification

14 Dec 2023, 12:22

The government has this morning published its consultation on the Advanced British Standard, which runs until mid-March.

It doesn’t seem to have many more details of how it would all work than what was published when the plans were first announced (you can read our previous round-up here).

The plan to ditch A-levels and T Levels for new “major” and “minor” subjects, including compulsory English and maths, would take TEN YEARS to introduce (which is also ignoring a potential change of government).

Unions said it was “difficult to imagine a more pointless waste of energy and time”. Geoff Barton, leader of ASCL, added it was “headless chicken policymaking”.

Nonetheless, the government has published a 80-page consultation and is encouraging the sector to take part. So what do you need to know?

1. Remind us: what is the ABS again?

It’s worth reading our full explainer here as to the broad aims around the new qualification, which the government says will replace A-level and T Levels.

Instead, the ABS will “create a simpler menu of high-quality options and expectations, for the first time breaking down the divide between ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ study”.

The main aims are clearer post-16 options, more teaching time and a core of maths and English but ensuring students study a wider range of subjects.  

2. There will be two ABS qualifications…

There will be the ABS and the ABS (occupational). Confused yet? 

The first will be for the majority of students working at level 3. It will entail a minimum of three “majors” (academic and technical subjects that directly support progression into employment or further study).

There will also be a minimum of two ‘minors’, with maths and English at either of these levels and some EEP activities (but not much more details on the latter).

The ABS (occupational) is for level 3 students who “are clear they want to specialist in one subject area”, but they may have to do 1,725 hours because of industry placements.

They would study one “major” and one ‘double major’ – both of which are subjects likely to be covered by the current T-levels or alternative academic qualifications (AAQs) – and do two ‘minors’ in maths and English.

3. Industry placements for ‘some’ students

Previous proposals on the ABS were clear that it would mean the end of T Levels and A-levels. 

Writing for FE Week shortly after the prime minister announced the ABS, skills minister Robert Halfon said that T Levels will “be the backbone” of the new qualification, which will “build on the success of A-levels and T Levels.”

All 16 to 19-year-old students would take the ABS, studying a mixture of ‘major’, ‘minor’ and employability, enrichment and pastoral (EEP) activities.

Some, but not all, students following the occupational route (see above) will do an industry placement as part of their ABS programme. 

DfE “envisages” that students who double major in subjects with “occupational entry competence” will take an industry placement. 

The consultation proposes the placements will be “based on the same principles” as the requirements for current T Level students, such as taking place in a workplace relevant to the training and be at least 315 hours.

All ABS students would have 1,475 guided learning hours, more than the current 1,280, over the two-year programme. Programmes could be around 1,725 hours including an industry placement.

4. Level 2 version and more English and maths for apprentices

A level 2 version of the ABS, which doesn’t have its own name yet, will have the same number of teaching hours as the level 3, but officials aren’t sure how to fill the time.

The consultation promises students an “appropriate breadth” of subjects, but they won’t be structured as ‘major’ and ‘minors’ like the level 3 equivalent.

Officials say it will be up to schools and colleges to decide how best to fill the 1,475 learning hours, such as by spending extra time on English and maths.

Students aiming for work or an apprenticeship can take the ‘level 2 occupational programme’ which would last 1-2 years. Or there will be a ‘one-year transition programme,’ similar to the T Level transition year, to progress to the full ABS.

Level 1 and entry-level programmes will not be included.

Young people on apprenticeships are also out of scope of the ABS, but the consultation suggests that officials are looking at extending the number of English and maths teaching hours for 16-19 year-old apprentices to match their classroom counterparts, ie 150-175 guided learning hours per subject. 

5. What would the subjects look like?

There’s not much more apart from broad principles here, but the government says there will be no more “different qualifications offering similar version of the same subject with overlapping content”, for example a subject being offered both as an A-level and AAQ.

Level 3 subjects should “provide stretch and challenge”, be “suitably knowledge-rich”, provided “levels of specialisation” appropriate for 16 to 19-year-olds and have “clearly distinct titles and content”.

Majors will cover at least 90 per cent of the content covered by A-levels with between 300 to 350 guided learning hours (A-levels have 360 hours). Minors will have between 150 to 175 learning hours. Students will also do “at least 150 hours” of employability, enrichment and pastoral (EEP).

Meanwhile, they will also get more time with a teacher “to improve outcomes”. Currently “we expect students to undertake a large amount of independent study, and also offer less time with a teacher”, the consultation adds.

6. ‘Difficult’ for providers to offer ‘full ABS suite’

A bigger breadth of 16 to 19 subjects means “it may be difficult for all providers to offer the full range of ABS subjects”, the consultation adds.

But it adds “as a minimum, our aim is for all young people to be able to access any of the ABS subjects at a provider within a reasonable travel distance of where they live.”

However this will “pose greater challenges in rural areas and other areas with fewer accessible providers” – a problem that has beset the roll-out of T Levels, too.

The consultation only says they will “continue to engage the sector” on the “best ways to overcome these barriers”.

7. Students to get ABS ‘certificate of achievement’

There would still be specific grades for each major and minor. 

But the current favoured option is to have a “certificate or statement of achievement recognising a student has completed their ABS programme and met the minimum attainment conditions to receive an overall award”.

This would “demonstrate to employers and post-18 providers student performance across the full programme. 

“A certificate would note the marks or grade received in individual components, but there would not be an overall aggregate score or grade that sits above these marks.”

Alternative options include a certificate without any minimum conditions required to receive it, or an aggregate ABS score.

8. How to find more teachers? A question for another day…

Education secretary Gillian Keegan in her foreword admits “we will need to support the system to prepare for this change, taking time to build the workforce and provision essential to delivery”. Quite.

DfE has just missed its secondary school recruitment target for the tenth time in 11 years and a £7,000 pay gap between school and college teachers is exacerbating an FE teacher recruitment and retention crisis.

More teaching hours and compulsory maths and English will have “significant workforce implications for providers of 16-19 education, who already face teacher shortages, particularly in STEM subjects”, the consultation states.

So what’s the plan? Alas, not a question for today it seems. Consultation responses “will help us refine the design of the ABS, and in parallel, we will consider how best to step up recruitment and retention of our workforce”.

“We will further develop our plans for the workforce through the ABS White Paper”, which is promised “next year”.

P.S. What about adults?

Nearly a million adult learners take classroom-based qualifications that could be replaced by the ABS, but officials haven’t yet worked out how the new system would work for them. 

One of the 58 consultation questions asks about potential impacts on other groups that take post-16 qualifications, such as adult learners and those in custody. 

An interim equalities impact assessment, also published today, said: “further policy development should take adult learners into account.”

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