2021 Autumn Term 1

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    Highly significant changes to vocational qualifications are underway. Here, ASCL Specialist Kevin Gilmartin looks at the implications for students, schools and colleges. More
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Highly significant changes to vocational qualifications are underway. Here, ASCL Specialist Kevin Gilmartin looks at the implications for students, schools and colleges.

Vocational reform

The 16–19 phase 

Vocational reform in the sixth form age group has seen more than its fair share of change over the years. Fans of acronyms must love the regular cycle of new initiatives that seem to come round with each new government administration. Over the recent past we have had TVEI, CPVE, NVQ, AVCE, GNVQ, VCE and the ill-fated 14–19 Diploma.

The Applied General Qualification (AGQ) is our present incumbent, of which the popular BTECs make up about 80%. All of these were introduced with government claims to be finally breaking down the academic/vocational divide and creating ‘parity of esteem’ for vocational education. In sharp contrast, A levels are pretty much the same as they were in 1951 – the reforms of Curriculum 2000 (AS levels and a more modular approach) being overturned by Mr Gove in 2015. That is 70 years of very little change whatsoever.

The latest vocational initiative is of course the introduction of T levels, which started in September 2020 with 1,300 students studying in three occupational areas: digital, design/surveying/ planning and education/ childcare. The long-awaited government response to Level 3 qualifications reforms was finally published in late July (just as schools and colleges were breaking up). It is fair to say that it highlights a bleak future for AGQs, and, in particular, Level 3 BTECs. Many educationalists and practitioners, including ASCL, are opposing the defunding of the AGQ. It looks like being a hard battle.

What will the 16–19 reforms lead to? Vocational reform though is not just confined to the 16–19 age group. The DfE is planning to reform higher technical qualifications (HTQs) at Levels 4 and 5 in order to train/retrain people for high-skilled jobs. This follows a government review of higher technical education in 2020 (tinyurl.com/3ezk2rtr) that found that employers are finding it hard to recruit highly skilled people with the right level of specialist skills. The first of the new HTQs in 2021–22 are planned to be a natural progression route for young people taking T levels and will be in construction and health and science. These will be followed in 2022–23 by HTQs in business, education/ childcare, engineering/ manufacturing and legal/ financial/accounting.

Qualifications landscape

In 2015, the Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF) set out eight formal levels of education. Each level links to a number of different qualifications that are considered equivalent in terms of academic difficulty ( see table below).

However, while this framework focuses on whole qualifications taken in a continuous period of time, many of the reforms for the new HTQs refer to modular qualifications. More mixing and matching should be possible, plus transferability between universities or colleges. There will be an emphasis on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM)-related subjects in terms of funding and student loan arrangements. Higher National Certificates (HNCs)/Higher National Diplomas (HNDs) have been around for nearly 100 years, so this change is a highly significant one.

Information and guidance on the new HTQs will be promoted through the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UCAS) and the National Careers Service (nationalcareers.service.gov.uk). The Baker Clause (tinyurl.com/u3nc3d2c) has been beefed up to make sure that schools allow colleges in to promote technical subjects and apprenticeships. Ofsted has already been commissioned for a review into Careers Education, Information, Advice and Guidance (CEIAG) in schools – the premise being that not enough emphasis is presently placed on promoting these technical options.

About 50% of all 16–18 year-olds go on to a traditional three-year degree. Only about 5% take equivalent technical level qualifications. The government wants to reduce this gap, increasing the latter percentage at the expense of the former. The government argues that it offers a better rate of return for young people and UK PLC.

The next few years promise to be more interventionist and turbulent than we are used to. The impact will not only be felt by students in terms of their progression choices but will also reverberate through structural changes in school sixth forms, colleges and universities. Rest assured that ASCL will be at the heart of protecting our members’ interests as this journey unfolds.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist

Level Academic route Vocational / technical route
Level 3 A level AGQ
Level 4 1st year degree HNC
Level 5 2nd year degree/ Foundation Degree HND
Level 6 3rd year degree Degree apprenticeship
Level 7 Masters/PGCE Professional qualifications e.g. qualified architect
Level 8 PHD Senior professional qualifications e.g. Chartered Strategic Leadership