WorldSkills UK national finals 2023

Welcome to this special souvenir supplement bringing you the full results and insights from the 2023 WorldSkills UK national finals in Greater Manchester.

The finals showcase the pinnacle of technical skills among UK students and apprentices, but there’s a lot more to skills competitions than winning medals.

Find out why Greater Manchester was the perfect host city region for this year’s finals, how learning from abroad is raising technical training standards at home, and get the very latest on how WorldSkills UK’s Centre of Excellence programme is transforming teacher CPD.

AoC 16-18 recruitment survey ‘reveals major concerns among college leaders’

Half of colleges have seen a drop in enrolment figures, with the blame partly placed on the loss of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA).

A survey by the Association of Colleges (AoC) of 182 colleges shows 49 per cent are reporting falling numbers of 16-19-year-olds, compared to last year.

It also shows a national drop of 0.1 per cent, the first time in 15 to 20 years the figure has fallen, with 46 colleges reporting a dip between five to 15 per cent.

Colleges believe unaffordable transport, combined with the abolition of the EMA and increased competition for student numbers among school and college sixth forms, have been the main causes for a decline.

The survey is further evidence supporting the findings from two surveys – conducted by Lsect – and published in FE Week. The first showed that 105 colleges forecast an initial total shortfall of 20,319 students for this academic year.

Key AoC survey findings:

  • Half of the 182 colleges that responded are seeing a drop in 16-19 students, with 46 colleges reporting a significant dip of between five per cent to 15 per cent
  • Of those reporting a decline, colleges say the end of EMAs for students in the first year of the course, competition from other providers, lack of affordable transport and cuts in funding per student were the main factors
  • A decline in Level 1 courses (pre-GSCE and basic skills) was reported by 41 per cent of respondents
  • 51 per cent of colleges said that their student numbers have increased or remained stable
  • 60 per cent of colleges reported a drop in transport spending by their local authority
  • Over half of all colleges are ‘topping up’ Government bursary funding with their own contributions and the same proportion are spending more on subsidising transport this year than last
  • 79 per cent of colleges agreeing that free meals in colleges for 16-18 year olds (currently not available, unlike in schools) would encourage participation.

Fiona McMillan, president of the AoC and principal of Bridgwater College in Somerset, said that at her own college EMA provided students with about £1,000 per year. Now, there is only £152 per year available for students.

She said: “We are all aware that funding is tight. But these young people are our future and we must consider our investment in them.

“We would all regret a situation where young people miss out and then become the so-called lost generation.”

Ms McMillan said the new 16-19 bursary, which replaced the EMA, is “better than nothing” but in terms of what it provides, “there is a big gap”. To cope, her college – like many others – has subsidised the cost.

She is also concerned colleges will miss out on vital funding, adding: “We are paid by our student numbers. So it’s an important issue for us.”

Martin Doel, chief executive of the AoC, said some of the changes could be due to demographics – with a drop of 40,000 in the 16-18 age group. He added: “It is a complex picture. The decline in college enrolment by students on Level 1 courses may be partially explained by improvements in school teaching.

“What is clear is a significant number of member colleges are concerned that financial constraints are preventing students from pursuing preferred courses at their institution of choice and there is a risk of vulnerable groups becoming disengaged from education.”

Andy Forbes, principal at Hertford Regional College, said they are “about five per cent down” on 16-18 enrolment from last year.

He said: “We’re now projecting a figure of just under 2,600 against our target of 2,719.

“We have experienced a particular decline in Level 2 enrolments and at the furthest reaches of our catchment area, which stretches quite a long way.”

Mr Forbes believes there are two factors to blame, adding: “The withdrawal of EMA and the cost of transport from the two ends of our catchment.

“We were not helped by late arrival of concrete information on what funding we had to compensate for loss of EMA and how we could use that funding, which made it difficult to put financial support in place for students and publicise them effectively.”

He also said colleges need to work harder to get the message across about the “exceptional quality of provision” they offer, in the face of “growing competition from schools” expanding sixth forms by offering vocational courses.

He added: “The decline of independent careers advice isn’t helping young people make good choices at 16 and we in FE are going to have to be a lot more active in ensuring school pupils and parents are made positively aware of the alternatives to staying on at school.”

However, the Department for Education spokesman (DfE) said there are “record numbers of 16 and 17-year-olds” in education or training.

He said: “There has been a massive increase in apprenticeships for anyone over 16 to learn a specific trade – 360,000 places in all available in more than 200 careers.

“And we are strengthening vocational education so young people will have high-quality courses open to them which are valued by employers.”

The spokesman also said: “We are targeting financial support at students who need it most to get through their studies – through the new £180m a year bursary fund, with further transitional support available for those students who were already drawing the EMA.”

Gordon Marsden, Shadow FE and Skills Minister, said the “alarming figures” show the impact of the government’s policy to scrap EMA. He said: “The government has left FE colleges facing a double whammy at a time of real economic uncertainty.

“Not only are college finances jeopardised by falling enrolment numbers, but they face the strain of having to try and address the post EMA funding gap, putting extra administrative burdens on them at a time where they claim to be setting them free.

“The government needs to get a grip urgently with a strategy that will help, rather than hinder, FE colleges in addressing young people’s employment and skills needs.”

AoC said they will repeat the enrolment survey in September 2012.

Click here to download the study and here to download the AoC press release.

Labour’s curriculum and qualifications review to include 16-19

The new government’s curriculum and qualifications review will launch a call for evidence in September, and 16 to 19 education will be included.

However, it is unclear whether the review will impact the current level 3 qualifications reform that involves defunding courses that “overlap” with T Levels, like BTECs, from 2025 amid calls for a “pause and review” of the plans.

As revealed by FE Week’s sister publication Schools Week yesterday, Professor Becky Francis (pictured) will lead the review, starting as chair next month.

She will be supported by an expert panel, with a call for evidence launching in September. Results will be published in 2025. Here’s your FE Week round up of everything you need to know…

‘Broad, inclusive and innovate’ curriculum sought

The review will cover from key stage 1 through to key stage 5.

On 16 to 19 education specifically, a government press release said: “The review will look at ensuring all young people aged 16 to 19 have access to rigorous and high-value qualifications and training that will give them the skills they need to seize opportunity as well as ensuring they are ready for the changing workplace.”

The release included no mention of Labour’s pledge to “pause and review” current level 3 qualification reform, an issue which former prime minister Gordon Brown and T Levels architect Lord Sainsbury intervened on this week.

FE Week has sought clarity from DfE but did not receive a response at the time of going to press.

The government’s press release said it wants a curriculum that “delivers excellent foundations in reading, writing and maths, and ensures every young person gets the opportunity to develop creative, digital, and speaking and listening skills particularly prized by employers”.

It will “build on the hard work of teachers who have brought their subjects alive with knowledge-rich teaching, to deliver a new national curriculum which is rich and broad, inclusive and innovative”.

The review will also look “closely at the key challenges” to youngsters’ attainment and the barriers that hold children back, in particular those who are socio-economically disadvantaged and those with special educational needs.

It will also look at whether the current assessment system “can be improved for both young people and staff, while protecting the important role of examinations”.

But ‘evolution not revolution’

However despite that, the government said the review will “seek evolution not revolution” as they recognize the “pressure schools and colleges are already under, and the further strain the wholesale reform can bring”.

They have pledged to be “alive to the trade-offs required to deliver high and rising standards alongside greater breadth – in particular any recommendations that would increase workload”.

Francis said: “I know how stretched schools, colleges and their staff are. So it’s particularly important to me to consider how any changes could contribute to staff workload and to avoid unintended consequences. 

“Crucially, I want to make sure that the review and its recommendations are driven by evidence and a commitment to high standards for all our young people, irrespective of background.”

But one big change, already announced, is that academies will now have to follow the national curriculum up to age 16.

Expert panel, and sector views ‘vital’

Francis will lead the review as its chair.  She will start on August 6.

Francis will also be supported by an expert group “made up of individuals with experience right throughout the education system”. They have yet to be appointed.

A government press release also said the views of experts, parents, teachers and leaders “will be pivotal to the recommendations”.

September launch and curriculum roadshows!

An official call for evidence will be launched in September. The review will also take written evidence from “key stakeholders”. Plus – there will be a “national roadshow” to meet and get input from staff “on the frontline”.

Findings next year, but could be 2026 before changes

The government would only say the review will publish recommendations “in 2025”.  The Department for Education has not said when changes would be implemented.

But its own workload commitment is that any major curriculum changes should be brought in, where possible, at the start of an academic year – with a “lead in time of at least a year”.

If this was adhered to, it means any eventual changes might not be introduced until as late as September 2026 – more than two years away.

Phillipson: review will ‘breathe new life into outdated curriculum’

Education secretary Bridget Phillipson said this is an “important step in this government’s mission to break down barriers to opportunity, deliver better life chances and enable more young people to get on”.

The review will “breathe new life into our outdated curriculum and assessment system” which has “for too long … held back” children.

Former DfE adviser and tutoring chief to lead EEF

Francis will join the DfE on secondment to lead the review. The EEF’s directors of impact and research, Chris Paterson and Emily Yeomans respectively, will provide interim leadership as joint CEOs in her absence.

Paterson was formerly a policy adviser at the DfE, while Yeomans was a director of the National Tutoring Programme.

Dame Christine Gilbert, EEF chair, will “provide additional time and extra support” as “executive chair”.

Gilbert added: “A common thread running throughout Becky’s career has been a laser-like focus on addressing educational inequalities. I have no doubt that she will bring this commitment to the review.”

Eight things we learned from Ofsted’s 2023-24 corporate accounts

Ofsted has faced a “difficult” year in which it has “rightly” come under scrutiny over Ruth Perry’s death, and faced “significant” financial challenges, its annual report and accounts states.

The watchdog has has published its corporate report for the 2023-24 financial year.

The documents cover the last nine months of Amanda Spielman’s tenure as chief inspector and the first three months under Sir Martyn Oliver.

Here’s what we learned.

1. ‘A difficult year’

Ofsted said its guiding principle was to be a “force for improvement” and the sectors it inspects and regulates “must have confidence in our ability to improve standards”.

But they added the last year “has been a difficult one”.

A coroner ruled last year that an Ofsted inspection contributed to Perry’s death. In response, Oliver launched his “Big Listen” consultation in order to shape proposed reforms.

“We launched the Big Listen at a time when Ofsted has – rightly – been under scrutiny following the tragic death of headteacher Ruth Perry last year. HMCI and everyone at Ofsted are determined that such tragedies should never happen again,” the report stated.

The watchdog said stakeholder engagement continues to be “a critical part of our response, with government, the public and sector representatives”.

2. Financial position a ‘significant challenge’

The civil service pay increase last year meant Ofsted’s staffing costs were “significantly more than we had been funded for”. Managing the financial position has been a “significant challenge”.

The watch said it required “some significant and difficult choices to mitigate the risk of overspending” and engaged “extensively” with DfE and the Treasury to “agree the savings proposals we put in place”.

However, Ofsted has not set out what savings it made.

3. Digital developments ‘paused’

Sir Martyn Oliver, chief inspector, said that as Ofsted responds to its “Big Listen” consultation, it “will need to marry the calls for change with the need to provide value for money”.

Ofsted said it had to slash its spend on digital developments during the year, in response to underfunded civil service pay rises.

It did this by “pausing work on a number of developments”, including a new service it was building to “support education inspections”.

Ofsted has not set out what the new service was, but said it would look into resuming it in the run up to the next spending review.

4. Auditors downgrade watchdog

The government’s internal audit agency previously gave Ofsted a “substantial opinion”, meaning its governance, risk management and control was “adequate and effective”.

This has now changed to “moderate”, meaning it is “largely adequate and effective”. 

Ofsted said this reflected the impact of external factors, such as “significant criticism” of the inspection system and “adverse media coverage that Ofsted has received in the past year”.

5. Departing chief Spielman got a pay rise

Before Spielman left Ofsted at Christmas, it appears she received a pay rise. However there was a pay increase for most staff of between 4.5 to 6 per cent, the report added.

Spielman’s salary rose from the £190,000 to £195,000 pay bracket to £200,000 to £205,000. 

Her successor Oliver is paid between £160,000 to £165,000 a year. Neither have received bonus payments.

6. Grades changed and inspections ‘incomplete’

This year, Ofsted changed the overall judgment given to FE providers on 3 occasions following a quality assurance process, the same number as the year before.

And 8 further education inspections were found to be incomplete in 2023-24, two more than the 6 recorded the year before.

7. Inspection target missed due to pause

Ofsted conducted 859 inspections of FE and skills providers, missing its target by 16 inspections, or 2 per cent.

It said this was caused in part by pausing routine inspections, in the wake of Perry’s inquest, between December 2023 and January 2024 to roll out mental health awareness training for inspectors.

8. Big Listen changes will come in next year

Ofsted reiterated that it will consult on any major changes it proposes as a result of the “Big Listen”.

It plans to put those changes in place during the 2024-25 academic year.

A comprehensive model for post-16 vocational qualifications

There is broad agreement on the need to offer students a strong range of vocational pathways to address an evolving skills landscape and boost economic growth. However, what form this will take is still unclear.

This issue will only become more important as the skills market is impacted by shifting demographics and a landscape in which AI becomes increasingly prevalent in our working lives. The World Economic Forum estimates that a billion people will need reskilling by 2030, as work adjusts to emerging technologies. 

Labour has previously committed to a ‘Pause and Review’ approach to the withdrawal of funding from some BTECs. However, a report published this week by WPI Strategy, commissioned by Lord Sainsbury, author of the 2016 report which paved the way for T Levels, calls for the government to ‘keep going with existing reforms and accelerate the roll-out of T Levels’.  

The right path for the government to take should be guided by the needs and demands of learners. Importantly, it’s government’s duty to consider the impact that the defunding of BTECs would have on the students who are taking them, as this is a policy which will affect the lives and futures of many thousands of young people. 

The sheer scale of impact is significant: over one in five working-age adults in England hold a BTEC and 32 per cent of current provision for 16-18 year olds is at risk as a result of the reforms, equating to around 300,000 students.

By comparison, T Levels only account for 2.5 per cent (23,000) of learners. Analysis by the #protectstudentchoicecampaign indicates that at least 155,000 young people could be left without a suitable course from 2026. The DfE’s Impact Assessment estimates that defunded qualifications represent around 12 per cent of all 16 to 19 enrolments at level 3, and 40 per cent of non-A Level enrolments at level 3.  

This in turn is expected to impact the talent pipeline in the UK at a time when the country is facing massive skill shortages for key professions.

The removal of BTECs would exacerbate significant shortages

Data from NHS England showed that over 31,000 positions for nurses, midwives and health visitors were unfilled in the UK as of March 2024. BTECs support one in five students in entering nursing degrees and 3,000 people in earning early years qualifications, one for every nursery in the UK.

The removal of BTECs would exacerbate the significant shortages we are seeing today. Many NHS organisations have expressed concern about the impact that the defunding of BTECs will have on the workforce and say that it is counterintuitive to their efforts to engage more people from a diverse range of communities.  

Finally, there is the important matter of educational inclusion. The DfE’s July 2022 impact assessment estimates that those with SEND, ethnic minorities and disadvantaged backgrounds are some of those most likely to be affected by the reforms.

The removal of alternatives to T Levels would likely result in a decrease in access and have a negative impact on the diversity of talent reaching higher education and employment. 

Certainly, there is a place for T Levels in the landscape of vocational qualifications. They are a welcome addition, providing more choice for young people.

But there is a way forward which does not require a stark choice between the two, as the WPI report suggests. In its place should be a comprehensive model which embraces both T Levels and BTECs and recognises their combined contribution to meeting the needs of the modern skills landscape. 

Personal statements reforms to ‘level playing field’

Personal statements for university hopefuls will be reformed to replace the “love letter” free text box with structured questions to help “level the playing field” for poorer students. 

UCAS has announced three new questions students will have to answer (see below) after concerns progress is stalling on encouraging disadvantaged students to apply for university.

It hopes the change will help “level the playing field” and make sure students from all backgrounds “better understand the key information universities and colleges want to know about them when making admissions decisions”.

The new format will be introduced in September 2025 for students applying for 2026 entry.

In England, the application rate from the most disadvantaged backgrounds has slightly declined by 0.4 percentage points to 25.4 per cent. However, this has risen by 0.1 percentage points to 60.7 per cent for the most advantaged. 

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at Exeter University, said the reform “was a significant step in making the university admissions system a little bit fairer for all applicants”.

“The love letter from a university applicant to their chosen university subject has increasingly become a barometer of middle-class privilege as so many personal statements are now co-created and polished by advisers, teachers and parents.

Dr Jo Saxton
Dr Jo Saxton

“This welcome reform strikes the right balance between a more structured approach to deter fabrication, while not limiting the opportunity for applicants to personalise their statement.”

Previous UCAS research found 89 per cent of students felt that the purpose of the personal statement is clear, but 79 per cent reported that the process of writing the statement was difficult to complete without support.

Kevin Gilmartin, post 16 specialist at the Association of Schools and College Leaders, welcomed the change, adding: “The current ‘text box’ approach is far too vague and has favoured students who are able to draw on support from family members that have previously been to university and submitted personal statements themselves. 

“The switch to structured questions will provide much needed clarity to students about what information they should be including. These questions should also be of more use to admissions tutors than the old-style personal statements, which research has shown were barely being read in many cases.”

Dr Jo Saxton, UCAS chief executive and former Ofqual chief regulator, said the new approach will give “greater confidence” to students as well as their teachers “when advising on how to secure their dream course”.

Last month, UCAS also waived the application fee for students on free school meals. 

The questions:

  • Why do you want to study this course or subject? 
    This is an applicant’s opportunity to showcase their passion for and knowledge of their chosen subject, to demonstrate to universities and colleges why they are a good fit, and to outline any future ambitions.  
  • How have your qualifications and studies helped you to prepare for this course or subject? 
    In this section applicants can describe relevant or transferable skills they’ve gained in education, and demonstrate their understanding of how these will help them succeed in their chosen course or subject area.  
  • What else have you done to prepare outside of education, and why are these experiences helpful? 
    Here applicants can reflect on their personal experiences, and any other activities they have undertaken outside their education to further demonstrate their suitability for the course.  

The King’s Speech: Much to celebrate but something is missing

As the priorities for our new government were laid bare in today’s King’s Speech, there is much to be excited about for those working in the further education and skills sector. However, as is often the case in politics, interpreting the legislative agenda is as much about what isn’t said as what is.

Labour’s previous promise to ‘pause and review’ the Conservatives’ plans to defund qualifications that compete with T Levels was never gong to feature today, because it doesn’t require primary legislation. However, continued silence on the matter is of grave concern, especially after yesterday’s intervention by Gordon Brown and Lord Sainsbury.

The formal announcement of the new Skills England is welcome. It promises to partner together central and local government, businesses, training providers and unions to meet the skills needs of the next decade. 

So is official recognition in Labour’s report Breaking down the Barriers to Opportunity that in recent years there has been a lack of clarity and an absence of a long-term strategy under which learners, businesses and training providers could thrive.

But why no mention of that promise to pause and review Level 3 qualifications? If it wasn’t technically necessary for the King’s Speech, the sector would nevertheless benefited from some certainty in this regard.

As reported in FE Week, former prime minister Gordon Brown and Lord David Sainsbury have called on the new government to ignore that promise. They call for an end to “the ‘wild west’ situation that currently exists”. According to them, the multiple and overlapping vocational courses of “varying quality” on offer to school leavers “supress talent”.

At the Skills and Education Group, where our core mission is to advance skills and education to improve the lives of individuals, we couldn’t disagree more.

Limiting post-16 education to a choice between A Levels, T Levels or an apprenticeship, narrows learner and provider choice, reduces opportunity and does absolutely nothing for social mobility. 

The result would be many learners falling by the wayside

It puts the emphasis on and the opportunity back into the hands of those who are academically driven and causes us to ignore the heavily practical, hands-on training that currently epitomises vocational training.

I am a product of an FE vocational training course. I did not thrive in a classroom setting. I am also the former chair of the Federation of Awarding Bodies. Now, as chief executive of the Skills and Education Group, I know that a choice of courses, of ways in which to learn and of environments to learn in is crucial if we are to serve all of the young people we should.

Yes, options may need tidying and standards may need clarifying, but to eradicate a breadth of choice would be a big mistake. The result would be many learners falling by the wayside: the carers, chefs, computer programmers, engineers, builders and the chief executives of tomorrow.

Let’s not forget: we know there are already problems with T Levels. Reports are starting to emerge of low attainment, especially in deprived areas. We know there aren’t enough work placements to fulfil the T Level offer. And we also know it is near impossible to create T Levels in some disciplines.

So we would ask the government to give our sector that pause and review. You say you want economic growth, to partner businesses and working people and to break barriers to opportunity. Please don’t start by reducing the opportunity currently open to many. 

Why Gordon Brown is wrong to go against Labour’s T Level promise

Few former Prime Ministers have been as vocal in championing FE and skills as Gordon Brown, who has picked out skills for young people as “central” to Labour’s growth mission. He makes a hard-to-ignore call to action for the new chancellor to move skills and post-16 technical qualifications “from the sidelines to centre stage” in the upcoming budget. 

Unfortunately, on the basis of Edge’s latest interim report, What do students really think about T Levels?, I’m not sure we can agree on the best way to do that. 

Brown has recently written a foreword to a new report, Delivering Skills for Growth. The report blames the “critical skills gaps” (which we have highlighted consistently at Edge through our Skills Shortage Bulletins) on “failures in post-16 technical education”.

This is a grossly unfair argument, when technical skills and preparing young people for the world of work pre-16 have been supressed by policymakers embattled in ideological debates for decades. 

The WPI Strategy report, “supported by” T Levels architect Lord Sainsbury, suggests: “T Levels are already producing strong outcomes. Almost all T Level completers move on to employment, apprenticeships, or university degrees”. This is intended to bolster the case for accelerating their roll-out and to ignore calls to pause and review the bonfire of BTECs. 

However, our research finds that T Levels are not (yet) well enough established in the qualifications landscape for students to feel confident that employers and universities will value, recognise or even be aware of their qualification on completion.

Students told us they felt “apprehensive” about their prospects, sometimes limited by the very specialist nature of the course. The path to “good pay in the very sectors of the economy where we are experiencing key shortages” may be there, but it takes time to be realised. 

That “almost all” who complete a T Level do not become NEET at the end of their course is not exactly the marker of successful outcomes you might expect from a report calling for their accelerated roll-out. 

But critically, this claim also skirts the major challenge affecting T Levels: poor retention. It therefore masks a whole host of issues with the qualification which we must first examine and address, before cutting off viable alternatives for good. 

T Levels have potential – but potential is where they currently stand

According to FE Week’s analysis, among the 2021/22 cohort, nearly one in three (31 per cent) of 16-year-old T Level students withdrew from their course. This compares with one in five students on other large VTQs and one in ten A Level students that same year. 

The risk of making such bold claims is that we skew the truth and mislead young people.

During our focus groups, many students described having been ‘mis-sold’ the qualification. The actual experience of their T-Level course diverged significantly from their expectations, set by the guidance and information they received when making choices.

These include reliance on rote learning and PowerPoints over opportunities for practical, hands-on work, limited subject-specific teacher knowledge, high teacher turnover, as well as a lack of textbooks for certain courses and of past papers for exam preparation. 

Where we can agree is on the importance of rocket-boosting communication and promotion efforts with employers.

Industry placements were a key selling point for the students we spoke to, and often their favourite part of the course. However, we heard how a limited pool of employers meant common delays (of more than a year) to commencing placements, causing unnecessary stress for students over whether they would actually be able to complete their qualification. 

It’s great that 65 per cent of firms who hadn’t previously heard of a T Level would look at offering an industry placement, but we’ve got to make it easy for them. That means solid communication between parties, reliable guidance and support, flexible delivery and bureaucracy kept to an absolute minimum. 

Of course, one way to force T Levels to ‘work’ is to remove the competition. That is definitely an option available to the new skills minister, who served under Brown at the end of the last Labour administration.

After all, the post-16 landscape is over-crowded. But there is a balance to strike. Our polling of adults in England at the start of this year revealed that 57 per cent think young people should actually have more choice in 16-18 education. 

There are also much bigger questions around T Levels as a replacement for other level 3 technical qualifications:

  • the chunkiness of the qualification
  • squeezing out any room for modularity and ‘mix-and-match’ with other subjects (currently possible with BTECs and A Levels)
  • whether a twin-track system of A Levels and T Levels would actually entrench divisions, undoing years of progress to build parity of esteem
  • their value in a properly functioning apprenticeship system, with lower-level apprenticeships readily available to young people, and progression pathways onto degree apprenticeships for those wishing to pursue more ‘academic’ study. 

T-Levels have potential. They sought to raise the status of technical qualifications, and that can only be a good thing. But potential is where they currently stand.

So, while young people, their advisers (parents and careers leaders), educators and employers get to grips with the many benefits that T Levels can offer and we resolve the teething issues to deliver high-quality provision and good outcomes for all young people, it would be re-miss to toy with the credible alternatives in the meantime. 

It’s good to see healthy debate and challenge within the Labour party’s education and skills policy, but let’s listen to the views of young people undertaking these qualifications to make sure they don’t get caught in the crossfire. 

Between October 2023 and May 2024, we visited 11 colleges across England, conducted 28 focus groups and 13 interviews with 210 T Level students (Foundation Level, Year 1 and Year 2), and 24 teachers and staff supporting T Level students. 

Positive trends hide serious 16-19 challenges for the new government

EPI has this week published its latest annual report, which highlights inequalities in students’ educational attainment in 2023. The findings show that since 2019, economically disadvantaged students have fallen further behind their peers in the early years, key stage 2 and key stage 4 phases of education. In contrast, the 16-19 disadvantage attainment gap appears to have returned to 2019 levels.

Comparing through time has been somewhat messy in recent years. Two years of cancelled exams and a staggered return to usual grade boundaries make direct comparisons a bit of a non-starter, so we instead focus on how gaps compare to 2019, prior to the pandemic.

In the 16-19 phase, economically disadvantaged students appear to be no further behind their peers than they were in 2019, though this is no cause for celebration. We know that there have been changes in the participation rate, retention and choice of post-16 qualifications since 2019 too.

These compositional effects will impact our measurement of the gap, and we will be exploring this through a deeper analysis to be published later this year. 

Moreover, a return to 2019 levels means we have seen no meaningful improvement since before the pandemic. Disadvantaged students are still 3.2 grades behind their peers across their best three results by the end of 16-19 study.

If we dig a bit deeper than our headline trend, we see other less positive patterns emerging.

Looking at A Level students only, economically disadvantaged students are over half a grade behind per qualification. This is a small increase since 2019, and we see similar trends among disadvantaged applied general students and those taking other level 3 qualifications.

It is safe to say that the new government has inherited a post-16 education system that has not worked well for a large cross-section of the young people it is meant to serve. This could be a moment of opportunity, but are the plans set out to date bold enough to make a material difference?

Disadvantaged students fall further behind during the 16-19 phase

There were some good ambitions set out in the Labour manifesto, as scrutinised in our recent general election report. However, they lacked detail.

Rolling out T Levels looks set to continue, but challenges with take-up and securing work placements remain.

Meanwhile, pausing and reviewing the defunding of the alternative level 3 qualifications is a positive step to ensure students from all backgrounds have suitable options available to them; but not going ahead with a planned Conservative policy is hardly the kick-start that the sector desperately needs.

Enabling providers to become ‘Technical Excellence Colleges’ formed another key part of Labour’s post-16 vocational offer, which will be funded through local skills improvement plans. If well executed, this may improve outcomes for the students attending these institutions. However, there is a long history of specialist institutions struggling to recruit students. They sound great in a manifesto or policy announcement, but focusing more on supporting existing colleges may ultimately be a more effective approach.

Reforms to apprenticeship funding are long overdue, as the decline in take-up under the current system demonstrates. Despite this, it is not clear how the increased flexibility Labour are proposing will boost take-up among young and disadvantaged learners, for which apprenticeship numbers have dwindled in recent years.

More positively, Labour’s commitment to form a cross-government child poverty strategy is a very welcome pledge and reflects a long-standing EPI recommendation. We know that much of the attainment gap in the 16-19 phase is a result of disadvantaged students falling behind in earlier phases. Therefore, addressing poverty at younger ages will also have the benefit of helping to reduce this gap.

However, it is also the case that disadvantaged students fall further behind during the 16-19 phase. None of the policies set out so far by the new government would appear to do much to address this. They are largely tinkering at the edges.

Plans to raise participation, retention and attainment among the most vulnerable students are needed if we are to make progress in closing the gap.

The new government should begin by focusing on addressing the teacher recruitment and retention crisis in the FE sector, where the majority of disadvantaged learners study. More support for disadvantaged students in 16-19 education is also required, preferably in the form of a student premium.

For many young people the 16-19 phase is the final opportunity to address the educational inequalities that they have experienced over their lifetimes. If the new government is to make progress on closing long-standing inequalities, it must not forget the 16-19 phase.

King’s Speech 2024: What’s in it for FE and skills?

Labour will use its first term in government to devolve even more skills powers to local areas alongside its high-profile plans for a new national skills body, Skills England.

King Charles III officially opened this parliamentary session this morning with the customary speech from the House of Lords. The King’s Speech outlined 40 new pieces of legislation that the government will seek to pass in the next 12 months.

He said: “My ministers will seek to raise educational standards and break down barriers to opportunity. Action will be taken to get people back in employment following the impact of the pandemic. A bill will be introduced to raise standards in education and promote children’s wellbeing.”

Here’s what you need to know about legislative plans for FE and skills:

Teacher bans back

Labour could be about to revive plans to impose lifetime bans on teachers guilty of serious misconduct in colleges and training providers. 

A children’s wellbeing bill was announced in today’s King’s Speech that will extend teacher misconduct rules and allow regulators to investigate cases “regardless of when the misconduct occurred” and “the setting the teacher is employed in”.

The Department for Education consulted on widening teacher misconduct rules to FE providers in 2022. The last government planned to include legislation in its schools bill, but the bill was dropped.

Under previous plans, FE colleges, special post-16 institutions and independent training providers will have a legal duty to decide whether to refer cases of serious misconduct for the Teacher Regulation Agency (TRA) to investigate. The TRA has powers to issue prohibition orders – preventing someone from working in teaching. 

The broadened remit for the TRA would “reduce the risk of a prohibited person trying to work between [pre and post-16] sectors”, the DfE said when it consulted.

FE Week has asked the DfE to confirm if this measure in the King’s Speech will apply to post-16 settings.

Qualified teachers?

New teachers in FE, as well as schools, could be required to have or work towards teaching qualifications.

The children’s wellbeing bill announced today will “recognise the status of the teaching profession” by mandating qualified teacher status.

The last government removed requirements for FE teachers to have or work towards qualified status in 2013. Since then, individual colleges and providers have been allowed to decide for themselves what, if any, teaching qualifications they expect from their teachers.

Education secretary Bridget Phillipson said last week Labour’s manifesto commitment for 6,500 new “expert” teachers will apply to schools and colleges. In its manifesto, Labour said it will also introduce a teacher training entitlement as well as returning to mandatory qualified status. 

DfE has been asked to confirm whether new qualified teacher requirements will apply to FE settings.

Wake me up, before you devo

Labour’s pre-election promises to give local leaders, like mayors, more powers over skills and employment support will be part of an English devolution bill. 

Details emerging from the King’s Speech are scarce, however Number 10 said the bill will introduce an “ambitious standardised devolution framework” with “greater powers” in return for new local growth plans. 

According to Labour’s manifesto, the plans will involve employers, colleges and universities setting out how they will support local growth sectors. It’s not clear whether these will replace existing local skills improvement plans. 

The government will also speed up devolution settlements in areas currently without one. For established devolved areas, “advanced mayoral settlements” will be created “where there is capacity and ambition to do so”.

MCAs and the Greater London Authority will be responsible for 62 per cent of the adult skills fund budget in academic year 2024/25 and “further devolution is planned”, a Number 10 press briefing announcement said.

Employment rights

Proposals to introduce minimum service levels, which the last government said would limit the impact of strikes, have been dropped. 

Labour’s workers’ rights drive will also see new laws banning zero-hours contracts and giving employees the right to sue for unfair dismissal from the first day of employment. 

An employment rights bill will be introduced to give employees immediate access to parental leave, sick pay and protection from unfair dismissal.

Since 2012, employees don’t obtain “full” employment rights until they have clocked up two years of consecutive service. 

Pay reporting

Organisations with over 250 employees will be required to report on the pay of their ethnic minority and disabled staff. 

A draft equality (race and disability) bill will be introduced by the government, mirroring existing requirements for reporting on gender pay gaps

“Surfacing pay gaps will enable companies to constructively consider why they exist and how to tackle them,” Number 10 said. 

What’s next?

Politicians will begin six days of debates on the King’s Speech tomorrow. 

Baroness Jacqui Smith, the new minister for skills, further and higher education, will make her debut maiden speech in the House of Lords on Friday introducing the education elements of the King’s Speech.

After the debates, bills will begin to be introduced and make their way through both houses of parliament.

King’s speech: Government to shift powers from IfATE to ‘Skills England’

New legislation that paves the way for a body called Skills England by “transferring functions” from the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education has been announced in the King’s speech.

In his address for the first state opening of parliament under a Labour government in 15 years, the monarch also confirmed his ministers will “reform the apprenticeship levy”.

The speech sets out the government’s legislative agenda for the next year, which will include a Skills England bill.

Labour pledged to establish Skills England in the run up to the election. The aim of the body will be to “bring together businesses, providers, unions, mayoral combined authorities (MCAs) and national government to ensure we have the highly trained workforce that England needs”, a Number 10 press briefing document said.

There will be consequences for existing quango IfATE, which currently works with employers to develop, approve, review and revise apprenticeships and technical qualifications.

FE Week reported this month that IfATE had reduced its headcount by 30 staff, including second-in-command Rob Nitsch, after being ordered to find savings by the Department for Education.

It is not clear from today’s announcement exactly what parts of the institute will be transferred to Skills England. A timeline for launching the new body has not yet been released.

There is also no mention of Skills England’s responsibilities in areas of higher education, such as the incoming lifelong learning entitlement. Its relationship with HE regulator the Office for Students also gets no mention in today’s King’s speech documents.

Number 10 said: “The Bill will transfer functions from IfATE to Skills England, which will sit at the heart of a system that provides learners with the skills required to thrive in life, businesses with the trained workforce they need to succeed, and local areas with access to the right skills to spur economic growth.

“Skills England will support economic growth by greater coherence to the assessment of skills needs and training landscape; ensuring training programmes are well designed and delivered to meet these needs; and that regional and national skills systems are providing the skilled workforce needed to enable businesses to thrive and to contribute to the Industrial Strategy at the heart of our growth mission.”

Reformed apprenticeship levy role

One key task of Skills England will be to identify non-levy training eligible for funding under Labour’s proposed “growth and skills levy”, set to replace the apprenticeship levy.

Today’s announcement didn’t include any further details about how Labour’s new levy would operate, but the party previously said it plans to allow up to 50 per cent of employer payments to be spent on non-apprenticeship training.

Skills England will “consult on (and maintain a list of) levy-eligible training to ensure value for money, and that the mix of government-funded training available to learners and employers aligns with skills needs,” Number 10 said today.

The body will also be tasked with developing a “single picture of national and local skills needs”. This will involve Skills England working with industry, the Migration Advisory Committee, unions and the Industrial Strategy Council to “build and maintain a comprehensive assessment of current and future skills needs” to help inform the Department for Education’s policy priorities.

Number 10 said the volume of skills shortage vacancies in England more than doubled between 2017 and 2022, from 226,500 to 531,200. Skills England will “build the evidence base needed to address these gaps and will be responsible for sharing this insight with actors at a national and regional level, supporting the development of provision that addresses this need”.

Skills England will also “ensure that the national and regional skills systems are meeting skills needs and are aligned, including using local and regional vacancy data as part of a robust evidence base”. The body will “convene MCAs and other key stakeholders to identify system issues and provide advice to Government, leading to a more coherent system”.

IfATE and DfE have been approached for comment.