We need more than ‘pause and review’ from Labour – and we need it now

Our campaign has all but secured a post-election pause and review of level 3 qualification defunding. Now the opposition must make its position clear

Our campaign has all but secured a post-election pause and review of level 3 qualification defunding. Now the opposition must make its position clear

17 May 2024, 5:00

The government’s reform of level 3 qualifications has been steadily marching in the wrong direction since it began in 2019. Characterised by a minister-knows-best approach and aversion to evidence, the process continues to disappoint.

Yesterday saw the publication of the list of qualifications that will be defunded in July 2025, alongside guidance on the combinations of qualifications that colleges and schools can offer.

But as we head towards a general election, these milestones in the inexorable level 3 review process appear increasingly irrelevant. A change of government would result in a very different approach to these reforms and avoid the dire consequences that would be triggered by the hasty removal of BTECs.

The Labour Party’s commitment to adopt the Protect Student Choice campaign’s recommendation to ‘pause and review’ the scrapping of BTECs is both extremely welcome and a potential game changer. The campaign coalition has worked very effectively over the past few years, but securing the support of Labour and the Liberal Democrats may turn out to be what has the biggest impact.

But of course, the challenge of planning for September 2025 remains.

If the current government is re-elected, students will have to choose from the greatly reduced menu of options published yesterday, and colleges and schools will be required to assemble study programmes within the boundaries set by the latest suite of bureaucratic regulations. Replacing local decision-making and flexibility with top-down diktats is unlikely to benefit students.

Things would be different under Labour, but how different? What will ‘pause and review’ mean in practice? Guiding the implementation of ‘pause and review’ is as important to us as securing the commitment.

Things would be different under Labour, but how different?

The key features of our position are set out below. We have shared a more detailed version with the opposition parties and will continue to help refine their plans as the general election draws closer.

  • Within one month of a general election, formally pause the defunding of level 3 qualifications. Confirm a single defunding date (1st August 2027) to ensure that students can enrol on all 134 existing applied general qualifications (AGQs) up to and including 2026/27
  • Agree a revised set of principles to guide a streamlined and refocused review of level 3 qualifications within the current three-route framework
  • Formally discard plans to a) present students with a choice of A Levels, T Levels and a small number of ‘alternative’ qualifications approved by exception and b) limit the ability of colleges and schools to combine qualifications
  • Oversee a review of T Levels involving students, employers, colleges, schools and a broad range of other stakeholders to identify the key adaptations and flexibilities needed to ensure they can play a more meaningful role in the future qualifications landscape

Confirming the duration of the pause would ideally happen before the general election. In reality it is likely to be made shortly after.

Crucially, because of the 12-month delay to defunding secured earlier in the campaign, all 134 applied general qualifications (including the 36 condemned yesterday) will still be in play when a potential Labour government takes office. A pause would therefore be straightforward to implement.

The level 3 reforms could then be focused on approving updated versions of applied general and technical qualifications, or new qualifications where there is evidence of demand.

Awarding organisations can build on their recent work developing alternative academic qualifications (AAQs) in their submissions, but it is updated AGQs we want to see, not AAQs designed to plug gaps in a two-route model of A-levels and T Levels.

Recalibrating the reform process in this way would provide a firm foundation for the Labour Party’s proposed curriculum and assessment review that will look far beyond the range of level 3 qualifications that are available to young people.

The government’s level 3 reform process lost credibility a long time ago. But with a general election on the horizon and clear blue water between the political parties on this issue, uncertainty and frustration are now tempered by hope.

The Protect Student Choice campaign will continue to work with the opposition parties on the implementation of pause and review to ensure that no young person is left without a high-quality pathway to higher education or skilled employment. 

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