Skills reform, T Levels

Ofqual proposes stricter controls on BTECs that survive qualifications cull


Regulators have unveiled plans for more “rigorous” controls over the BTECs and other post-16 qualifications which survive a planned bonfire of level 3 courses.

A 65-page Ofqual consultation published on Thursday details proposals to raise standards, but leaves the sector in limbo as it awaits news of which qualifications face the chop.

Courses which overlap with “flagship” A-levels and T Levels are set to lose funding from 2024, with education secretary Nadhim Zahawi arguing last year strong education systems abroad have hundreds not thousands of qualifications.

The cull has sparked a significant backlash, with more than 110 MPs and three ex-education secretaries slamming the plans. A petition has 108,352 signatures.

A newly published letter from Zahawi to Ofqual’s chief regulator Dr Jo Saxton also provides few clues about the scale of the cull.

But it says the “once-in-a-generation” overhaul from 2024 must ensure all post-16 provision is “fit for purpose”, asking Ofqual to balance stronger regulation with minimising “disruption and uncertainty” for schools and colleges.

‘Simplified’ system

Ofqual’s consultation reiterates past DfE pledges to create a “simplified system”, with A-levels and T Levels the “main academic and technical qualification offers” respectively.

But A Levels will sit alongside two “alternative academic” options – courses complementing students’ A-level and higher education choices, or courses with significant practical or performance-based knowledge unavailable through A-levels.

Meanwhile T Levels will sit alongside two “alternative technical” qualification types – those offering job skills in occupations not covered by T Levels, and those providing expertise which goes “beyond” standard occupational skills typically offered by T Levels.

The government also accepts a continued place for four more kinds of adult-focused qualification, and two other academic routes – courses like the International Baccalaureate, and small complementary options like Extended Project qualifications.

Grading overhaul

Ofqual is considering a “single grading scale” for alternative academic and technical qualifications, such as A* to E.

This would ensure “greater commonality”, but it acknowledged any scale may not be appropriate for all courses.

BTECs currently have their own grading system of pass, merit and distinction. Whereas WJEC qualifications, for example, offered across UK use an A* to E grading system.

Alternative options put forward by Ofqual include a fixed number of possible grading scales or grades, or letting providers use whichever scales they wish. The risk is a “proliferation” in scales.

The consultation asks if it should prioritise simplicity for users, flexibility for awarding organisations or comparison over time – potentially by keeping existing scales.

Performance tables

Zahawi’s letter had said most publicly funded qualifications should “meet the requirements to count in performance tables”.

Ofqual’s proposed “purpose” requirements for alternative academic courses include providing a “basis for schools and colleges to be held accountable” for performance”. 

Courses must be “sufficiently robust” to appear in performance tables.

Stricter assessment rules

Awarding organisations may be ordered to impose strict rules on non-exam assessments, specifying work and content required and how assessors differentiate students’ attainment levels.

Centres’ ability to make “changes” to non-exam assessment may also be curbed.

At least 40 per cent of alternative academic qualifications would be assessed via exams, on up to two set dates a year. The percentage is unchanged for applied general qualifications such as BTECs, but higher than the current 30 per cent rule for Tech Level courses.

Ofqual acknowledged exam requirements could “adversely impact” students with disabilities or conditions like anxiety, and two set assessment dates could coincide with religious events or activities. But it said some students would be disadvantaged “whatever time an examination is offered”.

Courses rebranded

A rebrand appears likely. Ofqual uses the novel terms “alternative technical” and “alternative academic”, but says the DfE will “confirm in due course what these qualifications will be known as”. 

It does not propose a single term – like A-levels – but seeks views on what “expectations for the use of specific terms or titling conventions” it should introduce. 

It acknowledges the risk this suggests more “similarity” between qualifications than there is, however.

Stricter Ofqual controls

Courses will only receive public funding if they meet government “expectations”.

Ofqual plans “strengthened controls” to drive up standards. Courses would be regulated more like GCSEs, with awarding organisations ordered to write and follow an “assessment strategy”.

Zahawi’s letter said providers should be clearer whether courses prepare students for work or further study. Ofqual said assessment strategies must include such “specific purposes”, and highlight how providers’ qualifications are designed, delivered and awarded.

This will help Ofqual “hold them to account”. It also wants powers to force awarding organisations to follow its requirements when it reviews their qualifications.

Ofqual will also set general standards on how alternative academic qualifications must be designed, though such “purpose” requirements are not proposed for alternative technical courses. Reforms will give students confidence in qualifications’ “rigour and currency”.

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