Level 3 reform: Ministers must step back from the precipice

Ministers are ignoring the risks inherent in their proposed level 3 reform and pressing on based on bad advice, writes James Kewin

Ministers are ignoring the risks inherent in their proposed level 3 reform and pressing on based on bad advice, writes James Kewin

6 Dec 2022, 12:00

Cast your mind back to the 18th of July this year, when temperatures hit 40 degrees and ministerial jobs at the department for education were available on a seasonal basis.

In a sweltering Westminster Hall, then-skills minister, Andrea Jenkyns was responding to the parliamentary debate triggered by the Protect Student Choice: don’t scrap BTECs campaign petition which had secured 108,000 signatures.

After MPs from all parties had expressed deep concerns about the government’s proposals for level 3 qualifications, the minister implemented the department’s well-established standard operating procedure for this policy area:

  • Step 1: repeatedly restate the government’s proposals
  • Step 2: talk about technical qualifications rather than applied general qualifications
  • Step 3: most importantly, only provide answers to questions that have not actually been asked.

This week’s response to the letter signed by the leaders of the 29 organisations in the Protect Student Choice campaign – including FE Week – suggests that this standard operating procedure is still very much in place.

The campaign letter contained three practical proposals that could be implemented before the government launches its (now overdue) qualification approval process. First, exempt the 134 reformed applied general qualifications from the approval process. Second, exempt all health and science qualifications from both the overlap and approval process. And third, adapt the process to allow medium and large academic qualifications to be submitted for approval.

The department’s response did not address any of these proposals and could very easily have been written before the campaign letter had been sent.

A letter signed by the leaders of organisations that represent and support students, staff and leaders in schools, colleges and universities alongside a range of employer representative groups deserved a much better response. But copying and pasting a selection of platitudes rather than addressing the issues is symptomatic of the department-knows-best attitude that has characterised the review of level 3 qualifications.

Successive ministers have been badly advised on these reforms

This matters because we are approaching a pivotal moment in the review. If the qualification approval process is launched without the adaptations suggested in the Protect Student Choice campaign letter, many applied general qualifications will disappear. For example, as currently conceived, there is no mechanism for awarding organisations to submit medium-sized (2 A level-equivalent) academic qualifications, and large (3 A level-equivalent) qualifications will only be funded in subject areas where there is no T level.

Successive ministers have been badly advised on the reform of level 3 qualifications. It has not helped that the tenure of some recent ministers has barely exceeded the 45-day duration of a T level work placement.

The future of applied general qualifications and by extension the life chances of tens of thousands of young people are largely in the hands of the minister that actually signed this week’s response to the Protect Student Choice letter.

Robert Halfon was only re-appointed recently and has a broad brief that includes apprenticeships, higher education reform, college governance and lots more besides. We might optimistically assume that on his watch, the sort of response received by the campaign this week will soon become a thing of the past.

It is hard to believe that, with Halfon’s extensive knowledge of and passion for the sector, he will allow the approval process to continue as planned, given this would see many of the 134 recently reformed applied general qualifications disappear. During the skills bill debate last year, he described BTECs as “qualifications with good outcomes” and emphasised that “quality BTECs should remain for all students to access”.    

Unlike many of his predecessors, he also has the knowledge and experience to challenge the voices within DfE that believe most applied general qualifications must be removed for T levels to flourish.

As I wrote after that balmy evening back in July, students need genuine choice, not A levels, T levels and a very small group of applied general qualifications that are approved by exception.

Robert Halfon has a golden opportunity to make that a reality, to step back from the precipice and ensure no student is left behind through the level 3 review process. The Protect Student Choice coalition and the students, staff, leaders, employers and many other constituencies we represent all hope it is an opportunity he takes. 

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