T Levels should be slimmed down so that students can study other qualifications, such as BTECs, alongside them, the new Ofqual boss has said.
Jo Saxton called for a “much more mixed offering” when it comes to post-16 qualifications during an interview with FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week.
She questioned a system that creates “division” between certain types of qualifications and welcomed the Department for Education’s new ministerial team’s recent reassurance that they do not want a binary choice of T Levels and A-levels when young people leave school.
“If I was in charge of T Level policy you would have a T Level that was equivalent to two A-levels so you could do a T Level and something else,” Saxton then said.
Her view is similar to that of education select committee chair Robert Halfon. His committee this week launched an inquiry into the “effectiveness” of post-16 qualifications such as A-levels, T Levels, BTECs and apprenticeships.
It will explore whether a new baccalaureate system that would “allow young people to study a greater blend of academic and vocational subjects” should be introduced in their place – an idea proposed by Halfon in 2019.
T Levels, which typically involve 1,800 teaching hours, including a 45-day work placement, are currently the equivalent to three A-levels. The government does not allow for other qualifications to be taken alongside them, whereas they do for A-levels.
The Department for Education is also in the midst of controversial reforms to level 3 qualifications, which are set to see the defunding of most BTECs and other applied general qualifications that overlap with T Levels and A-levels.
Ofqual regulates the technical qualification component of T Levels but overall policy design sits with the DfE and Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education.
Saxton admitted her regulator’s power over the make-up of T Levels is “quite limited” but said she would “definitely like to get more involved” in their development.
She added: “We want these high quality, innovative qualifications to be as accessible as possible to all learners. I’m thrilled to be leading Ofqual at a time when we will be regulating the technical qualification component of T Levels as they are introduced.”
A Department for Education spokesperson said there are “no plans to change T Levels” when asked if the DfE would consider Saxton’s proposal.
Saxton has taken over Ofqual at a time when regulation of vocational and technical qualifications is going through significant change.
One contentious reform is a proposal in the Skills Bill, which is currently making its way through parliament, to give the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education the ultimate sign-off power for the approval and regulation of technical qualifications in future.
Awarding bodies have claimed this is a “retrograde step” and would reverse the “gains” of independent regulation that parliament intended in 2009 when it set up Ofqual.
Unlike Ofqual, the institute is a non-departmental public body directly accountable to ministers, not parliament.
There is concern that IfATE’s new powers would therefore introduce a conflict of interest. Some also fear that having two regulators splitting responsibility for certain types of vocational and technical qualifications could also create a muddled and cumbersome two-tier system of regulation.
Saxton admitted the move is “slightly controversial” but believes it is “completely right” because IfATE has the expertise and time that Ofqual doesn’t to explore exactly what type of technical qualifications are needed by employers.
“The new powers mean IfATE gets to hold the kind of standard of what good technical qualification – in whatever discipline that is employer-related – looks like. We get to look at the assessment part of it.
“I think that separation is quite useful.”
She added: “I’ve heard already from a number of awarding organisations in vocational and technical sectors that they’re worried about this being the beginning of what they call ‘dual regulation’ and there are more hoops to jump through.
“But for me, I think it’s completely in the interests of learners. There is a legal requirement to keep an eye on regulatory burdens, and we’ve got to make sure that it doesn’t become inappropriate.”