Qualifications, T Levels

Level 3 reform: Keegan is about to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory

Ending any consensus between politicians on level 3 reform could damage not just student choice, but also politicians' reputations, writes Tom Bewick

Ending any consensus between politicians on level 3 reform could damage not just student choice, but also politicians' reputations, writes Tom Bewick

27 Jan 2023, 15:00

Albert Einstein once said the definition of insanity is ‘repeating the same mistakes over and over again, expecting to get different results.’ At the Department for Education it appears ministers and senior officials might now be backtracking on solemn qualification reform commitments made to a cross-party group of peers, at the time of the skills bill deliberations. 

Two former education secretaries – true titans of the post-war era – joined forces in the upper house during the passage of the legislation. 

Conservative, Lord Baker and Labour’s Lord Blunkett, pointed out that England won’t be able to build a genuinely world-class secondary education system by trashing many existing, perfectly good qualifications in the process. 

A change of ministers at Sanctuary Buildings helped ensure a rather more delicate consensus emerged. 

It included the notion that alongside A-levels and T Levels, 16-19 year olds in England, in future, would still be able to pursue tried and tested qualifications like BTECs and other applied general qualifications. 

That didn’t mean the culling of all qualifications at level 3 and below would cease. Quals that overlap directly with government-owned qualifications are already being removed. 

But it did represent a breakthrough in the idea that government was seriously listening and responding to heartfelt concerns about learner choice.

This tentative cross-party agreement is now seriously under strain. 

It means an incoming Labour government, riding high in the polls, could decide to break cover and openly oppose many of the post-16 reforms.

Dogma over delivery

Taking fright from any major political escalation, those in the FE delivery ecosystem could simply decide to go slow, effectively strangling the reforms, via a thousand tardy excuses as to why rollouts can’t go ahead as planned. 

The fact the whole qualifications reform timetable straddles the febrile general election period should make senior officials wary of being seen to be too servile in their desire to please incumbent political masters. 

We all know what happened to 14-19 Diplomas in 2010, when an incoming government applied the kibosh. Public money was wasted. Thousands of learners were issued with certificates which are now worthless in the labour market. 

It’s why newly promoted to the cabinet, Gillian Keegan, is in danger of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. 

As skills minister, Keegan developed a reputation for placing dogma over delivery; ideological purity, over the inevitable pragmatism of what is required in high-office, particularly when government launches a controversial set of reforms

I still have confidence that the education secretary will not renege on the letter from her predecessor to Parliamentarians, sent on the eve of the Skills Bill becoming law. 

Any politician with an eye on their legacy is not going to crudely rip up what amounted in July 2022 to an important shift in level 3 policy. 

Not least because history is never kind to politicians who engage in what Lord Baker called at the time, “educational vandalism”. 

Voters won’t forgive education reform done badly

The experience of T Levels last summer and its ongoing fallout should be enough to caution ministers that, in the end, parents and learners will decide the fate of these reforms. 

One misstep could bring the whole reform crashing down. 

Already we’re hearing stories from FE providers of students transferring from the first year of T levels onto other courses. 

The government may think the easy answer is to hunker down and carry on regardless. 

They would be mistaken to put too much faith in a bureaucratic qualification approvals process at level 3 that is designed to manipulate the quals marketplace so egregiously, that it will leave students – particularly disadvantaged students – with nowhere to go.  

Voters have memory. Everyone has an opinion about education because it is the one common shared experience that shapes us all. 

People are not going to let go of vocational qualifications that their brothers, sisters, aunties and nieces have taken for decades. No more than we can expect Middle England to suddenly give up on A-levels, around since 1951. 

In 533 Parliamentary constituencies across England, voters will want to know why a Conservative government has obliterated course choices and educational opportunity for young people. 

On the doorstep, voters will ask why local sixth form colleges are operating a system of educational apartheid, with students forced to choose either an academic or the new technical routes. 

The 1944 Education Act ultimately failed because society moved on. The comprehensive principle replaced learner segregation.

History tells us that education reform is only lasting when everyone comes together in the national interest, rather than pursuing some narrow agenda built on outdated dogma. 

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