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The Department for Education is reforming level 3 qualifications to make A Levels and their new technical alternative T Levels the main further education qualification options at age 16 in England. Following a reformed approvals process, they will sit alongside complementary level 3 academic and technical qualifications deemed to meet new quality criteria. Apprenticeships will remain available as an alternative post-16 option.

What are level 3 qualifications?

In England, Wales, and Northern Ireland there are nine qualification levels, ranging from entry level (which has three sub-levels) to level 8. The higher the level, the more difficult the qualification. Level 3 qualifications are mainly taken by young people after their GCSEs (level 2).

The Department for Education (DfE) approves level 3 qualifications submitted by awarding bodies/organisations for public funding if they meet certain criteria. These are then included on the Education and Skills Funding Agency’s (ESFA) approved qualifications list. Further education providers receive funding from the ESFA to deliver level 3 qualifications on this list to their students as part of study programmes, or T Level programmes.

Most young people pursuing a level 3 qualification in England are studying for AS/A Levels. Students interested in studying technical or vocational qualifications have generally taken Applied General qualifications, which include qualifications commonly known by their brand name, such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals. Since September 2020, the Government has also begun rolling out T Levels, which are two-year technical qualifications equivalent in size to three A Levels.

How will the new system work?

Following a consultation on post-16 qualifications at level 3 in 2020/21, the Government published a policy statement in July 2021 saying it wanted to create “clearly defined academic and technical routes” for post-16 progression that sit alongside apprenticeships. The Government hopes the reforms will remove “low-quality qualifications” from the system, and ensure students have confidence in the outcomes of their choices.

A Levels will be central to the academic route, which is intended to lead to higher education study at university. T Levels will become the main qualification option for the technical route and are intended to support progression into skilled employment (requiring specialist training or expertise), further technical study or apprenticeships, and potentially higher education courses.

Other level 3 qualifications, including applied general qualifications, will sit alongside A Levels and T Levels, but they will need to demonstrate their quality and distinct purpose to continue receiving public funding. Overlapping qualifications, including BTECs that overlap with T Level subjects, and those that do not meet the quality criteria for academic and technical qualifications set by the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education respectively, will no longer receive public funding.

When will changes happen?

Phase 1: Defunding qualifications with low and no enrolments

The Department for Education has published a list of the 5,500 qualifications at level 3 and below with low and no enrolments for which funding was removed from August 2022 for new starts.

Phase 2: Defunding qualifications that overlap with T Levels

T Levels are expected to be fully available across England by 2025. Under the current timetable, funding will be removed from overlapping qualifications in waves from August 2024. An overlapping qualification is a technical qualification with similar outcomes to a T Level.

In October 2022, the Department for Education published a list of the 134 qualifications that will have funding withdrawn from 2024 because they overlap with T Levels launched in waves one and two (digital; construction; education and childcare).

In October 2023, it published a list of the 85 qualifications that will lose funding from 2025 because they overlap with wave three T Levels (business and administration; engineering and manufacturing; finance and accounting).

Phase 3: Quality review of remaining qualifications

The Department for Education has published guidance on the third phase of its reforms, which explains the new funding approval process that most level 3 qualifications will need to go through in order to receive public funding alongside A Levels and T Levels. Reformed qualifications will, in future, be approved for three years (rather than the current one-year cycle), unless there is a change in circumstances that means an earlier review is necessary.

In cycle 1, the Department for Education will approve level 3 ‘alternative academic’ and technical qualifications in subjects that complement wave one and two T Levels. These will be taught from September 2025. In May 2024, a list of qualifications approved for funding will be published. Awarding organisations will then be able to appeal, with a final list published in July 2024.

Cycle 2 will then cover all other level 3 qualifications to be funded and taught from September 2026, with a list of approved qualifications published in May 2025. Again, there will be an opportunity to appeal any decisions.

Reaction to the reforms

The Protect Student Choice campaign, which is a coalition of 30 organisations from across the education and employment sectors, has called on the Government to rethink its reforms to defunding level 3 qualifications. Arguments made against the Government’s reforms by the campaign and others include:

  • The current three-route model (A Levels, technical qualifications that lead to a specific occupation, and applied general qualifications that combine practical skills with academic learning) works well and should be retained.
  • T Levels are different qualifications that students will pursue for different reasons and should sit alongside the existing qualification offer.
  • Removing funding from some BTECs may leave students without a viable progression pathway at age 16, including those from Special Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND) backgrounds, Asian ethnic backgrounds, and disadvantaged backgrounds.
  • Removing funding for BTECs may reduce participation in higher education among disadvantaged groups.
  • The Government has used data “in a partial and misleading way” (PDF) to understate the performance of applied general qualifications and overstate the performance (and potential uptake) of T Levels.

In April 2023, following an inquiry into the future of post-16 qualifications, the House of Commons Education Committee published a report that called for a “moratorium” on the defunding of applied general qualifications, saying:

Tried and tested Applied General Qualifications should only be withdrawn as and when there is a robust evidence base proving that T Levels are demonstrably more effective in preparing students for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility.

While the Education Committee did hear some support for the removal of funding from applied general qualifications, the vast majority of oral and written evidence it received was critical, and the report said it was rare for there to be such a consensus on a particular issue.

In June 2023, the Shadow Secretary of State for Education, Bridget Phillipson, pledged that the next Labour Government would pause and review the removal of funding from many level 3 qualifications.

What is the Advanced British Standard?

Rishi Sunak first announced his ambition to overhaul 16 to 19 education as part of his unsuccessful bid for the Conservative Party leadership in 2022, when he outlined plans for a ‘British baccalaureate’.

On 4 October 2023, the Department for Education published a policy paper on the Advanced British Standard (ABS), which will be “a new Baccalaureate-style qualification that takes the best of A levels and T levels and brings them together into a single qualification.” It would be a post-16 option for students alongside apprenticeships.

The Advanced British Standard would consist of:

  • A common core in which all students would study English and maths at an appropriate level and depth.
  • A choice of academic and technical subjects that would be a mix of bigger and smaller subjects, called ‘majors’ and ‘minors’. Students would typically study three major subjects and two minor subjects.
  • Non-qualification time which would include enrichment, pastoral, and employability activities for all students, and a relevant industry placement for students preparing for a technical occupation.

The Government has said it will take around a decade to implement the Advanced British Standard fully. It will launch a formal consultation on the approach and design of the new qualification in autumn 2023. This will inform a White Paper due to be published in 2024.

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