The government’s consultation on the review of post-16 qualifications closed on 10 June. As we await the outcome with bated breath, we wonder: was this just an attempt to sacrifice the Applied General Qualification (AGQ) on the altar of T levels? Kevin Gilmartin examines the bigger picture.
To argue that the real purpose behind the consultation is to ensure the success of T levels may be true. It may also be too simplistic. Better perhaps to see the final paragraph in the explanatory document accompanying the consultation that says, “If we are to tackle the current skills gaps every qualification needs to be high quality and support progression to good outcomes.” This is a consistent message, which first appeared in the Wolf Report 2011 and again in the Sainsbury Review 2016.
Since these reports, we have seen 16–19 Study Programmes, new performance tables criteria, T level proposals and A level reform for those on the ‘academic’ as opposed to ‘technical’ route. But where does the AGQ sit? It has itself been recently reformed and it straddles both academic and technical. This is perceived as a ‘problem’ by government and the aim of this consultation seems to be to try to sort this out once and for all.
The review says, “high quality qualifications are needed to address significant skills gaps and aid social mobility”. Few would argue here. However, many would argue the AGQ already does this. This is not saying we shouldn’t welcome T levels as well. To have a new qualification, with 45-days’ work placement, co-designed by employers and leading to Level 4 technical training or employment in a skills shortage area, has got to be good news. But should it really be at the expense of the AGQ? When degree apprenticeships were recently introduced, alongside undergraduate degrees and HNDs/HNCs, nobody argued to scrap the latter qualifications in case they prevented students taking degree apprenticeships. If quality and progression from a new qualification is good, then student demand will follow.
The review points out that as of July 2018, over 12,000 qualifications were approved for 16–19 funding (entry level to L3). Few would argue that simplification of the system should be welcomed, and qualifications with little or no enrolments over a period of time should be defunded. But using this as a reason to defund the most popular qualification type, the AGQ, does not make sense.
The Wolf Review found that many technical qualifications were “not valued by employers”. Similarly, the Sainsbury Review found employers saying that many individuals who have completed qualifications remain “poorly equipped to enter skilled work”. However, there is no mention that many A level students are also poorly prepared for work and many A level subjects would similarly be poorly regarded by some employers.
The government quotes 2018 Ofqual analysis from BTEC qualifications, which found the attainment gap in HE between students with older BTEC qualifications and A levels has increased over time. Also graduates with BTEC qualifications were less likely to be in full-time employment or in a highly skilled occupation. They also earned less. But as AGQs have just been reformed, shouldn’t we wait and see what impact this has on these outcomes first?
The review also quotes that 12% of young students who entered university in 2014–15 with a BTEC qualification subsequently dropped out of university, compared to a 6% average. But it fails to mention their prior attainment – 96% of A level students had 5+ A*–C GCSEs, while AGQ students had just 61%. Are higher dropout rates really surprising in this context? And shouldn’t we wait for the reformed AGQs to work their way through the system?
The review says little about social mobility, but research from the Social Market Foundation (https://tinyurl.com/yxbpeq5o) says from 2008 to 2015, the number of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with A levels entering university increased by just 19%. For students with BTECs, that figure was 116%. Many would argue this indicates that AGQs are an effective learning mechanism for student progression. T levels, for all their promise, are still untried.
The government is clear that it wants T levels to become the default choice for a career in a technical route, saying, “If they become just another part of the current system, they will add complexity to the system rather than remove it.” While many argue reducing to just two routes is too simplistic, a growing body of support is gathering for a middle ground of three qualification pathways:
1. Academic: Courses in subjects assessed by examinations e.g. A levels
2. Applied: Courses covering broad employment areas assessed by a mixture of coursework and examinations e.g. the new AGQs or the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme (IBDP) and International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme (IBCP)
3. Technical: Courses in a specific trade or profession assessed through competence assessment, coursework and examinations e.g. T levels
Whether the full range of 16–19 qualifications should then be rationalised so each subject only appears in one of these pathways may be the subject of a different debate, but it provides a more sensible starting point than the present consultation. There is enough room in the system for both AGQs and T levels. Can’t we start the review from there?
See ASCL’s response to the consultation at www.ascl.org.uk/level3consultation
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist