Thousands of students could be left without a qualification to study

1 Jul 2022, 0:01

Unless ministers take a slower, more iterative approach to T Levels, our analysis suggests many learners could be left without a course at all, writes David Hughes

The English qualification system is a complex beast, so reforming it is tricky.

There is a lot to consider and a lot at stake: the credibility and currency of thousands of qualifications run by hundreds of awarding organisations, the engagement of the teachers and education providers who deliver them and the trust and understanding of employers and HE providers.

And most importantly, the hopes and ambitions of the students who will take and use these qualifications is at stake.

There is also the challenge of maintaining integrity across time so that, for instance, ‘old’ qualifications are not debased because of new ones. 

It’s a fragile balance which needs sensitive handling, clear communications and strong stakeholder management with a diverse range of people and institutions who ‘use’ qualifications – students, parents, employers, universities, colleges, schools, teachers, advisers etc. 

In England, we are in the middle of several simultaneous reform programmes. One strand is the new T Levels and higher technical qualifications, based on a premise that we support at AoC: that England needs a coherent and respected set of technical qualifications that help to meet the aspirations of students and the needs of industry. 

With the first cohort of T Level students soon to receive their results, it’s a good time to take stock of where we are and think about how the reform roadmap might need to be adjusted. 

Ministers are understandably keen to see results quickly and yet we know that getting these reforms right will take many years.

Colleges are rightly setting entry requirements for T Levels

The current consultation on the first 160 existing qualifications for which funding will be removed because of ‘overlap’ with T Levels has heightened our concerns about the pace of reform. Our analysis suggests it could result in many thousands of students without a qualification to study. 

Some current level 3 students will find T Levels very demanding, so colleges are rightly setting entry requirements to ensure students will be successful.

Some colleges and areas of the country might struggle to deliver all of the T Levels, particularly with the challenge of finding work placements in some sectors. 

That’s why we believe the decision to cease funding for any qualifications that are deemed to overlap with the new T Levels is risky.

There are 52,920 college enrolments on the 160 qualifications in 2021/22. Of these, 44,796 are aged 16-18 and nearly all have the defunded qualification as their main aim. We do not believe that all these students would have been able to move straight on to a T Level.

And for adults, alternative qualifications might simply be unviable because of small numbers. 

If our concern comes true, it will disproportionately affect students facing the greatest disadvantage, with more young people ending up not in education, employment or training (NEET). That’s why we are asking for a full impact assessment to be carried out urgently.

Today, we are publishing our analysis to support the wider debate about how we ensure that every young person has access to the motivating, stretching and relevant education they deserve.

We would like to see a more considered, iterative approach, with time for the T Levels to become established and to prove their worth. That way, the 160 pre-existing qualifications would simply wither on the vine and defunding would be simple.

We believe T Levels have the potential to be a long-term success, if introduced in the right way, but the pace at which qualifications might cease to be funded looks high risk. We want to see more young people achieve level 3 by age 19, but our fear is that these reforms might instead result in fewer. That should worry us all.

We want T Levels to be respected, widely understood and supported by employers with exciting placements, but the approach being taken risks too much in its haste to reach that point.

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