Government plans to reform and simplify level 2 and below qualifications risk adding further confusion to the landscape, Ofqual has warned.
The exams regulator has also flagged “significant risk” with the timeline for implementation as the proposals overlap with changes to level 3 qualifications and could “overwhelm” educators.
Ofqual raised the concerns today in response to the Department for Education’s level 2 and below qualifications consultation which closed last week.
The DfE claims the current landscape is “confusing” with around 8,000 technical and academic qualifications available at these levels, many of which cover the same or similar subjects.
Ministers now plan to axe thousands of the courses. Sector leaders previously called the proposals “devastating” and a “full-frontal assault on the very idea of lifelong learning” which “fly in the face of the ambition to level up the country”.
Under the plans, the surviving qualifications would be placed into 17 new “groups” – eight at level 2; five at level 1; and four at entry level.
Ofqual has now warned: “At present, there is a risk that the large number of proposed groupings are not sufficiently clear or straightforward for students and others to differentiate between.”
The watchdog said its “expert opinion” is that it would be helpful to “segment, and define, the provision based on aspects such as qualification purpose – in effect, combining those of the 17 proposed groupings that have common features”.
Not only will this aid navigability for students, but also provide “clarity with respect to purpose” which is “critical” to supporting good assessment design by awarding organisations.
“This will help ensure that students are tested on the right things, in the right way, to support them in taking their next step, whether this is into work, an apprenticeship, or further academic or technical study,” Ofqual said.
“School and college leaders will, in turn, have a clearer basis on which to design the associated programmes of study.”
The level 2 and below consultation follows a separate contentious review of level 3 qualifications which proposes to remove funding for most courses – including Pearson’s popular BTECs – that overlap with T Levels and A-levels from 2024.
The DfE said it expects the process for deciding which level 2 and below qualifications will remain to be done in a phased way from 2024 to 2027.
Ofqual pointed out that the proposals at level 2 and below – which were originally intended to follow those at level 3 – will now largely be implemented at the same time.
This poses “significant risks in terms of system capacity, which may impact on students’ ability to engage with the new provision”, according to the regulator.
It will also entail challenges for qualification design as, based on the present timeline, some level 2 qualifications are expected to be developed and approved before the corresponding level 3 qualifications – to which in some cases they are intended to progress – are available.
Ofqual pressed that a more phased implementation process of the plans is required to help secure the quality of the provision and the ability of students, and school and college leaders, to engage with it.
The DfE’s level 2 and below review impact assessment estimated that about a third of those aged 16 to 19 who enrol on the qualifications in scope of the reforms are in the most socioeconomically disadvantaged group.
Ofqual said it is important that aspects of the proposals, such as certain sizes of qualification being available only to certain age groups, “do not remove legitimate choices and opportunities for the students who depend on these qualifications”.
The DfE’s response to the consultation, which excludes GCSEs, functional skills and essential digital skills qualifications, is expected to be published later this year.