Qualifications reform can’t put politicians’ interests above learners’

The prime minister’s announcement is a glaring example of the kind of political expediency he says he’s against, says James Kewin

The prime minister’s announcement is a glaring example of the kind of political expediency he says he’s against, says James Kewin

12 Oct 2023, 17:00

Many of the lines in the Advanced British Standard policy document published last week could have been lifted from #ProtectStudentChoice campaign materials: “we must end the artificial separation between technical and academic routes”, “not everyone is ready to decide their future career path at a young age”, “the economy of the future will demand flexibility”.

But instead of reversing the disastrous decision to scrap BTECs, the government used these arguments to justify the scrapping of A and T Levels as well. As U-turns go, this was as spectacular as it was rapid.

On Tuesday, T Levels were still a “once in a generation opportunity to reform our technical education system”, a “gold standard” technical route for 16- to 19-year-olds that complemented the equally gold standard A Levels in a parallel academic route. On Wednesday, both qualifications were just not golden enough and the Advanced British Standard (presumably a platinum standard qualification) would take their place.

There are many aspects of the Advanced British Standard (ABS) that are appealing – particularly the plan for greater breadth in the curriculum backed by more funding. We share the government’s ambition to develop a world-class 16-19 education system and welcome the pledge to increase investment in this crucial phase. 

But it is difficult to bridge the credibility gap between vision and reality, not least because the government has spent the past 13 years running in the opposite direction.

For example, real-terms funding for students in sixth form colleges was 15 per cent lower in 2022/23 than it was in 2010/11. The removal of AS Levels has led to a narrower curriculum in almost every sixth form college. And the government has consistently fallen well short of its teacher recruitment target, which makes the ABS plan to increase the number of taught hours by 15 per cent difficult to take seriously. 

As our Desperate Measures report set out last month, the government’s review of level 3 qualifications has been a largely evidence-free process and legitimate concerns are routinely ignored. But however misguided, the government’s model was at least clear: A and T Levels as the centrepieces of academic and technical routes.

It is difficult to bridge the credibility gap between vision and reality

Now the government plans to consult on a plan that is its exact opposite. The ‘minister knows best’ approach had blown the level 3 reform process in the wrong direction and now the ‘prime minister knows best’ approach is blowing it in another. 

The right direction is one where the interests of students and their career prospects are put before the interests of politicians. To develop a world-class system, government first needs to put the foundations in place. Two years ago we set out a nine-word manifesto: “Don’t scrap BTECs. Raise the rate. Leave us alone.” That’s not a bad place to start.

The government should then embark on a genuine, inclusive and wide-ranging consultation about the long-term future of 16-19 education, starting from first principles. Few have any doubts that the current sixth form offer is too narrow and must evolve to meet new challenges.

But let’s not be naïve. The ABS was primarily created for electoral rather than educational reasons. The short term-funding that accompanies it should not distract us from the fact that no thought was given to the students, particularly T Level students, who enrolled on “gold standard” qualifications that will now be scrapped.

It is possible that after 13 years, the government has had a Damascene conversion to the cause of 16-19 education. It is also possible that the government has thrown T level students and providers under a bus in order to eke out a few extra votes in the impending general election.

You do not need a qualification in Advanced BS to work out which is the most likely explanation, particularly as the government has already ruled out reversing its plan to scrap BTECs.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association will engage in the debate around ABS, but we will do so in a clear-eyed way. Our aim throughout will be to ensure the long-term interests of students are put before the short-term interests of politicians. 

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