From education to employment

Qualification reform rethink needed after new research shows value of programmes at level 2 and below

hief Executives and Chairs of AELP past and present (left to right these are: Stewart Segal, Jane Hickie, Martin Dunford OBE, Nichola Hay MBE, and Mark Dawe

Latest research carried out by the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP), NOCN Group and the Skills and Education Group (SEG), shows that level 2 and below qualifications are massively valued by both employers and learners. The report – ‘Access to the Future’ – contains evidence that undermines justifications used in government proposals for qualification reform.

Launched in Parliament this week, at an event to celebrate AELP’s 20th anniversary, ‘Access to the Future’, is a new report on the worth and value of qualifications at level 2 and below. This significant new research was commissioned on the back of a Department for Education (DfE) consultation that could see funding removed from up to 85% of level 2 and below qualifications – rising to 90% of qualifications for young people.

The report found that programmes at level 2 and below produce clear benefits for both learners and employer. Data from ‘Access to the Future’ found that 90% of learners described level 2 programmes as making them feel knowledgeable. Over 70% of employers either agreed or strongly agreed that ‘people with level 2 qualifications demonstrate reliable standards of competence and skills’ and ‘people with level 2 qualifications have the vocational and technical skills.’  

‘Access to the Future’ also outlines how disadvantaged groups disproportionately take on level 2 and below qualifications. Students who were eligible for free school meals at age 15 are more likely to study level 2 and below programmes in FE. The proportion of ethnic minorities in level 3 programmes is 15%, rising to 20% at level 2 – and over half at entry level. Reform of these qualifications also risks attempts at ‘levelling up’ the country, as students from the most deprived areas account for about 17% at Level 3 among 16-18 students. This rises to 30% at level 2 and almost 40% at entry level.

AELP reaction to DfE consultation response

AELP has also reacted to the DfE’s response to this spring’s consultation on level 2 and below reform.

  • AELP welcomes the DfE’s recognition in the consultation response that there is a need for greater flexibility on the qualification offer and 16-19 study programme provision. The original proposals for young people would have lacked flexibility and could have become too rigid.
  • An extra transitional year, to ensure first teaching of reformed qualifications begins in 2025 rather than 2024, is a positive move. As they stand, the proposals present a significant change in curriculum design so providers will welcome an extra year to prepare.
  • However, for adults the government’s response fails to address wider concerns that are held across the sector. As the DfE’s own impact analysis highlights, defunding level 2 and below for adults has a serious impact on enrolments. This would be equivalent to 360,000 enrolments – at a time when participation in adult education is already declining. 

Despite some progress following the consultation, AELP believes these reforms remain flawed. They have urged ministers and officials to work more closely with the skills sector to bring forward proposals that truly reflect the value and worth of level 2 and below qualifications.

Jane Hickie, AELP Chief Executive, said: 

“Our new report, ‘Access to the Future’, lays out an irrefutable case as to the importance and worth of qualifications and study both at and below Level 2. Level 2 and below qualifications lead to entry-level jobs and are often taken on by those who have little or no prior experience. I’d like to thank NOCN Group and SEG for helping to produce this report which we launched at our 20th anniversary celebration in Parliament this week. 

“Our research is clear: these programmes lay the foundation for achievement in the workplace by creating and developing skills and behaviours beyond what is taught in school and further education. They are valued by employers and learners alike, and it would be a huge mistake to defund programmes which do so much to improve social mobility.”

Paul Warner, AELP Director of Strategy and Business Development, and co-author of the report, said:

“Level 2 and below qualifications play a huge role in our skills framework. People sign up because they want to improve their skills so they can do their jobs better, have a better chance of promotion, or to get a new job. But people also take on these qualifications for other reasons. Perhaps they want to be part of something, they want to find or rebuild their confidence, or they just want to achieve something. Our research shows that those wider factors are valued not just by learners but employers as well. This must be taken into account government press ahead with plans to axe up to 85% of programmes at these levels.”

Toby Perkins, Labour’s Shadow Minister for Skills, who launched the report in Parliament, said:

“I’m delighted to celebrate the 20th anniversary of AELP and sponsor their event in Parliament – they’re an incredibly important organisation and their input is invaluable in solving the current issue of skills shortages. 

“Their latest report ‘Access to the Future’ sets out a powerful argument in support of qualifications at level 2 and below. I look forward to hearing more from AELP and their members as they continue to challenge decision makers on this and the many other issues that are affecting work-based learning.”

‘Access to the Future’ was released on Monday 17 October at an event to celebrate 20 years of campaigning for an education system that recognises the value of work-based learning. The report was written by AELP’s Paul Warner and Chihiro Kobayashi and contains nine key recommendations: 

  • Policy must be evidence based.
  • No system of qualification or progression should contribute to “learned helplessness” by promoting unrealistic expectations of achievement.
  • Any government proposals must recognise the reasons and motivations behind learners embarking on level 2 and below qualifications.
  • Reform should acknowledge the importance of studying qualifications at level 2 in order to recognise basic technical skills and good practice in their own right.
  • Further research should be undertaken to establish why there is a lack of progression from level 2 by certain groups – particularly SEND learners.
  • Understand the need for certain types of qualification in literacy and numeracy is far less important than the need to find the right way to teach and assess these skills.
  • Information, advice and guidance (IAG) strategies must look to address only young people and those who have major influence over their decisions such as parents and guardians.
  • IAG must do more to dispel the view that vocational qualifications are a “second best”.
  • Apprenticeships, particularly at level 2, must align more coherently with DWP benefit rules.

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