From education to employment

Programmes at level 2 and below have great value – they must be protected

Paul Warner is Director of Strategy and Business Development at the Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP)

Last week, AELP was delighted to launch our latest research – on level 2 and below qualifications – at an event in parliament hosted by the Shadow Skills Minister, Toby Perkins MP. At our event, I outlined the importance of this research in setting out the value of level 2 and below qualifications – and why it’s vital the government look again at their proposed reforms.

Level 2 is an access point at which the future becomes accessible

The report’s title, ‘Access to the Future’, paraphrases one of the punchiest quotes we gathered from the people we interviewed when putting it together. The full quote was actually, “level 2 is an access point at which the future becomes accessible” – which is true, but perhaps not the whole picture. For many, qualifications below level 2 can have as much impact and make as much difference to their lives and futures as those at level 2 and above. Nevertheless, the principle that all qualifications in some way provide an access point to the future is incredibly true. That’s why NOCN, the Skills and Education Group and AELP were so committed to doing this work in the first place.

‘Access to the Future’ was commissioned following the Department for Education (DfE) consultation on level 2 and below qualifications. We need a skills system that’s fit for the future, and it is right that there’s a process in place to determine the qualifications funded at each level. It’s generally felt that some sort of change is needed in how this landscape is arranged. Removing funding from qualifications with little or no enrolments and from those with low or no progression rates is logical. However, the sheer scale of the proposals is of deep concern. The reforms could see funding removed from up to 85% of level 2 and below qualifications – rising to 90% of qualifications for young people. Inevitably, that size of reform means qualifications with real value are in danger of being scrapped.

‘Access to the Future’ gives us a strong evidential base backing the value and worth of these qualifications. We now have clear data that these programmes below produce clear benefits for both learners and employers. More than 90% of learners describe level 2 programmes as making them feel knowledgeable – and over 70% of employers tell us that, in their view, people with level 2 qualifications demonstrate very reliable standards of competence. As Graham Hastings-Evans of NOCN pointed out at our event, of the 32.8 million jobs in the UK, over a third are at level 2. These are qualifications that must be protected if we’re to fill the jobs that exist across the economy.

Understanding the variety of reasons for study at level 2 and below

A major flaw in the government’s proposals is a lack of understanding of the many reasons why individuals take these programmes in the first place. We have to understand that people take these qualifications not just for economic ends, but because they want to be a part of something; that they want to find or rebuild their confidence; that they just want to achieve something; that they want to see if this is something they may have an aptitude at or might enjoy. From those points of view the actual thing that you are doing, the actual subject, can sometimes decrease in relative importance.

The proposals instead tend to concentrate on broadly suggesting that anything at level 2 and above ought to be specific to occupations, and anything below that ought to be very generalist in nature, to be embarked upon prior to choosing a specific line of work. This misses the point that for some people there are basic behaviours, skills and techniques that need to be covered and achieved before they even think about committing themselves to working at a higher level, or going on to further learning. For many, the notion of starting from scratch at level 2 or (even worse) level 3 presents a daunting prospect that can prevent them from engaging with learning altogether.

This is backed by the evidence throughout ‘Access to the Future’. Nobody denies that economic considerations play a very large part in why individuals choose to follow any course of study towards any qualification, at or below level 2, or at any other level. However, it became clear very quickly that there is indeed a wider perspective. There are a lot of other reasons why people study beyond just ticking up the ability to earn more money or to increase productivity for their employer. Perhaps surprisingly, we found that employers were also seeing and valuing these wider benefits from the perspective of the benefit to the individual and what it would mean for them, as much as the employer.

Delays to implementation welcome, but a total rethink needed

The DfE has now responded to the consultation. Although our fundamental concerns remain, there is some positive movement on how these reforms – should they happen – will be implemented. For example, an extra transitional year to ensure first teaching of reformed qualifications begins in 2025 rather than 2024, is welcome. This will give providers an extra year to prepare. The proposals present a significant change in curriculum design so that extra time will be crucial. We also welcome 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 government’s response still doesn’t address the wider concerns that are held across the sector. DfE’s own impact analysis highlights that defunding level 2 and below for adults has a serious impact on enrolments at a time when participation in adult education is already declining. This type of wholesale reform of qualifications must be done transparently, with real detail forthcoming on what qualifications are in scope for having funding removed. That still hasn’t been made available which makes it extremely difficult for us to fully understand the impact these proposals will have.

Nevertheless, our research looks at how we can improve the skills system at level 2 and below to ensure the value and worth of these qualifications is properly harnessed. The report sets out nine key recommendations to make necessary improvements to the system. These are that:

  1. Policy must be evidence based.
  2. No system of qualification or progression should contribute to “learned helplessness” by promoting unrealistic expectations of achievement.
  3. Any government proposals must recognise the reasons and motivations behind learners embarking on level 2 and below qualifications.
  4. 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.
  5. Further research should be undertaken to establish why there is a lack of progression from level 2 by certain groups – particularly SEND learners.
  6. 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.
  7. Information, advice and guidance (IAG) strategies must look to address not only young people but also those who have major influence over their decisions such as parents and guardians.
  8. IAG must do more to dispel the view that vocational qualifications are a “second best”.
  9. Apprenticeships, particularly at level 2, must align more coherently with DWP benefit rules.

Level 2 and below qualifications play a huge role in our skills framework – and that role must be protected. Without a government rethink on qualification reform, we risk undermining a vital pipeline into learning, and a huge negative impact on the rest of the skills system.

 By Paul Warner, Director of Strategy and Business Development at AELP.

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