Ministers must halt their controversial planned bonfire of BTECs and other level 3 qualifications until there is evidence T Levels are a “more effective” replacement, a committee of MPs has warned.
The House of Commons education committee has called for a moratorium on the government’s plan to defund a raft of applied general qualifications (AGQs), warning a “clear track record” of T Level success should be a “prerequisite” to their defunding.
The committee made the demand as it published the findings of its inquiry into reform of post-16 qualifications, in which it also urged the government to address the fall in young people taking apprenticeships, called for a “wholesale review” of 16 to 19 funding, and proposed an independent expert panel to look at the possibility of adopting a post-16 baccalaureate model in England.
Department for Education officials are working to introduce a streamlined system for students finishing their GCSEs that pushes them to study either A-levels, their new technical equivalent T Levels, or an apprenticeship from 2025.
Alternative AGQs, such as Pearson’s popular BTECs, will only continue to be funded if they do not overlap with T Levels or A levels and pass a strict new approvals process.
The education select committee, chaired by Robin Walker (pictured), who was schools minister between September 2021 and July 2022 when the reforms were being pushed through, warned “tried and tested” applied general qualifications should only be withdrawn when there was robust evidence proving T Levels were more effective in preparing students for “progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility”.
The ability of businesses to offer “sufficient, high-quality industry placements”, and a “clear track record” of T Level success, as well as evidenced improvement in equalities outcomes, “should be prerequisites to scrapping further applied general qualifications on the basis of overlap”.
Walker said: “We have concerns about the feasibility of scaling up T Levels, and, as it stands, the planned withdrawal of AGQs will constrict student choice and could deepen the skills shortages that these reforms are meant to fix.”
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which has led on the Protect Student Choice campaign, said he hoped that “ministers will finally start to listen and rethink their damaging proposals” adding that AGQs “serve a distinct and different purpose to the government’s new T Levels”.
The committee also demanded key data around T Level graduates’ destinations and progression be published as soon as possible.
In an interview with FE Week, Walker said that removing AGQs simply because they overlapped with T Levels “risk removing some of the steppingstones for people to be able to move forward”.
He distanced himself from involvement in discussions on the reforms during his own tenure in the ministerial team.
He said: “Those were discussions that would be taking place really between the secretary of state and the skills minister of the time.
“It wasn’t something I was intensively involved in. As schools minister, I would have been briefed on the outcomes of those discussions rather than engaged in them.”
The committee’s report said that while T Levels were rightly rigorous and challenging, there was not yet the right balance between “rigour and accessibility”.
Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, said: “This damning report from a cross-party group of MPs should send shockwaves through the Department for Education.
“It is not too late too late to take stock of these reforms.”
MPs also said that up to 250,000 T Level employer placements could be needed but employer interest in offering placements had fallen from 36 per cent in 2019 to 30 per cent in 2021. Nearly two thirds of employers were not interested in offering placements at all.
The committee also pointed to DfE data which estimated one fifth of first cohort students dropped out, and exposed a 14 per cent progression rate for T Level transition programme students onto a full T Level, with just under half (49 per cent) progressing into a different level 3 programme.
DfE’s own equalities impact assessment found that students with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND), those from disadvantaged backgrounds, from Asian ethnic groups and males were “likely to be particularly affected by the reforms”.
The committee added: “Early evidence indicates that schools and colleges are setting high entry requirements, and we heard that, as a result, T Levels could be restricted to a small pool of academically gifted students who have a specific employment goal in mind by age 16.”
Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said ministers have “dug their heels in and appear to be determined to scrap a proven set of qualifications,” and can “only hope that they now pay heed to the warnings of the education select committee”.
A spokesperson from the DfE said: “Our post-16 qualifications system provides a ladder of opportunity for young people from all backgrounds, so every qualification leads to a rewarding career, either through higher education or skilled work.
“We welcome the committee’s recognition of the importance of our reforms. We will consider the recommendations and respond in due course.”