Beware the ‘tidy mind’ when considering funding below level 3

24 Nov 2020, 9:39

Ministers must listen to the sector carefully if they want to avoid a post-16 quals fiasco, says Tom Bewick

After months of phoney war, the Department for Education has launched its second round of consultation on which regulated qualifications below level 3 will be assigned public funding in future.

The battle lines are clear: the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, argues that there are a “ridiculously large number of qualifications”. To the tidy mind in Whitehall, it is time to simplify the landscape and make the offer for learners “clearer” and much “easier” for employers to understand.

At one level, it all sounds rather benign.

Except, the experience of early August should be fresh enough in ministers’ minds to make them pause for thought. They should wonder whether the post-16 review could end up being the nemesis of their own career prospects if they get it wrong.

After all, the Conservative Party manifesto on which the election was won last December said that policy needed to move away from “Whitehall knows best”. The fall of the “red wall” seats has meant the “levelling up” agenda now has a vocal political faction, sitting on the government benches in parliament, in ways not seen before.

These MPs will be looking for visible signs of the commitment to create real ladders of opportunity. In every community, particularly for those outside social mobility metropolitan hot-spots, policy will be judged on whether it actually narrows the gap for people who have been economically marginalised and left behind.

It is curious, then, why political alarm bells are not already ringing in Sanctuary Buildings.

The impact assessment of their plans for post-16 qualifications, drawn up by DfE senior officials, lays it all out in quite stark terms.

For example, the ESFA estimates that nearly two-thirds of current quals below level 3 for 16-19-year-olds would not be eligible for public support in future. The estimated impact on reduced enrolments, therefore, for those on the traditional academic track (where A-levels are the predominate qualification), is 16 per cent.

The impact assessment even admits something ministers have so far denied in public about the rationale for these reforms: artificial market manipulation.

Because qualifications that compete with 24 T Levels will not be publicly funded in future, the document says blithely: “Low competition on the technical route should help to support the delivery and take up of T Levels.”

For those who have traditionally pursued a vocational technical qualification at level 3, the impact on reduced enrolments for this group could be as high as 62 per cent.

In other words, the current ministerial fiat that says 16-19-year-olds will have to take either an academic (A-level) or a technical (T Level) route in future will largely be achieved only by wiping out nearly two-thirds of current provision for this age group.

Beyond the cold statistics, this could result in a real human cost, of significantly less choice in the L3 market in future, with the potential to significantly drive up the number of NEETs.

You can already see the constituency case work increasing. MPs’ surgeries deluged by aggrieved learners and parents who will feel they are being treated like square pegs being bashed into policy round holes. “Why should my daughter have only the choice of A-levels or T Levels?,” could become a common refrain.

The situation gets worse for adults and SEND learners. Nearly one-third of technical qualifications currently available at level 3 (31 per cent) for this group “may not fit into the future landscape”, officials admit.

For students from SEN background, the impact assessment concludes that these students could end up being “more strongly negatively impacted by being unable to achieve level 3 in the reformed landscape”.

When Dame Glenys Stacey, the interim chief regulator at Ofqual, was asked about what went wrong with the exams fiasco this summer, she said the whole system had made “a fundamental philosophical mistake”.

When you look at the potential adverse impact on life chances and equalities in the post-16 qualifications review, ministers will not be able to claim this time round that they were unaware of the consequences. They have been warned.

Crucially, it is the job of everyone working in the skills sector to point out where these reforms may not live up to all the hype.

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