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The Department for Education (DfE) plans to make A Levels and their new technical alternative, T Levels, the main further education qualifications at age 16 in England. They’ll sit alongside apprenticeships. Funding for overlapping post-GCSE options, including many BTECs, will be removed.
These reforms, announced in July 2021, are part of wider Government efforts to overhaul the further education system, including through provisions in the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill.
On 15 November 2021, the Government said it would delay the reform timetable by a year, with overlapping qualifications now due to lose funding from 2024.
The reforms have been criticised for their perceived hastiness and the potential effect they’ll have on student choice and future opportunities. This Insight gives background to the Government’s plans, explains the reforms and their implications, and summarises reaction.
What are level 3 qualifications?
Level 3 qualifications are mainly taken by young people after their GCSEs (level 2), but some are also funded for adults.
They include A Levels, T Levels (new, two-year technical courses equivalent to three A Levels), and vocational ‘applied general’ qualifications commonly known by their brand name, such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals.
Most 16- to 18-year-olds pursuing a level 3 qualification in England are studying A Levels, but nearly a third are estimated to be studying an applied general qualification, in some cases alongside A Levels.
Level 3 qualifications can precede higher education qualifications at levels 4 and 5 (such as higher national certificates and diplomas) and level 6 (bachelor’s degrees), as well as higher and degree apprenticeships.
Why does the Government want to reform the system?
As of July 2018, there were 4,000 level 3 qualifications eligible for public funding. Many were duplicates in the same subject, including over 200 different engineering qualifications.
Independent reviews of the further education system, commissioned by the Government in 2011 and 2016, found qualification options were confusing for students and employers, and there were too many courses not adequately equipping students for skilled work (3.5 MB, PDF).
The Government believes better qualifications are needed to address skills gaps and improve social mobility (794 KB, PDF).
The two-stage consultation
Between March and June 2019, the DfE consulted on the principles that should apply to level 3 qualifications and below in England. The aim was to create “a more streamlined, simplified and ambitious technical qualifications system.”
Following the first stage of consultation, the DfE stopped approving public funding for new level 3 qualifications. It also announced the removal of funding from 163 duplicate qualifications and said qualifications with no or low enrolments would lose funding from July 2021 and August 2022 respectively.
The second stage of consultation launched in October 2020. It sought views on which remaining level 3 qualifications should continue to be funded alongside A Levels and T Levels. 80% of respondents disagreed with the central proposal to remove funding from qualifications that overlap with T Levels.
How will the new system work?
The Government will create two pathways for post-16 progression. An academic route centred on A Levels is intended to lead to further study. A technical route will mean T Levels become the main qualification option for young people wanting to enter skilled employment (requiring specialist training or expertise).
Other level 3 qualifications will need to demonstrate their quality and distinct purpose to continue receiving public funding. For example, by meeting business and industry needs or leading to specialist higher education courses.
A reformed approval process also means the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will use employer-led standards to evaluate technical qualifications.
The Government hopes the reforms will remove “low-quality qualifications” from the system, and ensure students have confidence in the outcomes of their choices.
Reactions from further education
The further education sector is concerned the new system will reduce student choice and accessibility.
The proposed speed of the reforms has also attracted criticism. Only 10 of the 24 planned T Levels are currently available, and adult learners are not yet eligible for these courses. The Association of Colleges has called for the defunding of qualifications to be paused until the T Level programme is more established.
Who is most likely to be affected?
The Government’s impact assessment acknowledges students from SEND (special educational needs and disability) backgrounds or derived areas are disproportionately represented on courses at risk of losing funding, and some might be unable to achieve a level 3 qualification in the future.
Research published by the Social Market Foundation in 2018 showed students accepted to university from working-class backgrounds (based on National Statistics Socio-economic Classification occupational categories) and/or minority ethnic backgrounds are more likely to hold a BTEC qualification than their peers. The Foundation’s report (p18) said:
a quarter of Asian students (24%), just over one in five (22%) of mixed students, and 37% of black students were accepted to university after completing only BTEC qualifications at Level 3.
Many universities believe removing funding for BTECs will reduce participation in higher education among disadvantaged groups (463 KB, PDF).
When will changes happen?
Following a campaign urging the Government to rethink its plans – including a letter signed by a cross-party group of 118 MPs and peers – the Secretary of State for Education, Nadhim Zahawi, announced on 15 November 2021 the original reform timetable would be delayed by a year.
T Levels are expected to be fully available across England by 2024/25. Under the new timetable, funding will be removed from overlapping qualifications from 2024. The provisional list of qualifications to be defunded is due to be published in the coming months.
Further education funding in England, House of Commons Library.
FE white paper: Skills for Jobs for Lifelong Learning for Opportunity and Growth, House of Commons Library.
T Levels: Reforms to Technical Education, House of Commons Library.
About the author: Joe Lewis is a researcher at the House of Commons Library specialising in further and higher education policy.
This Insight was updated on 18.11.21 to reflect changes in the Government’s timetable for reform.
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