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Minister Burghart risks flunking the first lesson in the history of English qualifications reform

Tom Bewick is the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show
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For months the qualifications reform programme has felt like driving in thick fog. Awarding Organisations have known they are on a journey to rationalisation. But exactly what that means in hard practical terms has proven rather elusive.

Well, this week, the veil of ignorance was partially lifted ,as the Department for Education finally came clean about which Level 3 qualifications it plans to defund that compete with new government owned T Levels. In the first two-phases of roll out, up to 66,000 learner enrolments are affected across 160 qualifications; with more than a quarter of this group having previously been on free school meals at school (FSM is the official definition of disadvantage).

Alex Burghart Writing in the Press

Interestingly, the skills minister, Alex Burghart, writing in the sector press this week, said that all the government was doing was “retiring” older qualifications, similar to the change-over in 1988 when O Levels and CSEs were replaced by GCSEs.

What I think many people in the sector will find particularly egregious about these comments is why, for a trained historian, Burghart appears to have such a limited knowledge of how qualifications work and the role they have played in the reform of upper secondary education since the 1870 Balfour Act.

When GCSEs were first introduced, in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the school leaving age was 16. And GCSEs were essentially end-point qualifications introduced to help better signal the combined academic ability of young people in preparation for progression onto further and higher education.

GCSEs were never intended as vocational or technical qualifications or specifically to help young people into skilled employment beyond the school leaving age. And crucially, there were no other secondary level qualifications competing  in the space at the time that ran alongside O Levels and CSEs (a part from the international baccalaureate, which was only available mainly in independent schools).

And crucially, the reformed GCSEs were never owned by the government. The exam boards that previously offered O Levels and CSEs, simply reshaped the content to offer the integrated syllabus of GCSEs allied with the new national curriculum, which in turn, continued to enable state schools and head teachers to exercise a choice as to which examination board they wanted to go with.

Fast forward 40 years

Fast forward 40 years and what we now see is a Conservative government that is itself getting into the qualifications business. The Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will be the certificating authority for T Levels. They manage the T-Level contracts that the licensed AOs must adhere to when developing the content for these full-time study programmes.

But it seems the government has so little confidence in the mantra that T Levels are genuinely “world-class” qualifications that it is now embarking on an exercise to ensure that, in content terms, T Levels will never be threatened or have to compete with rival technical qualifications in the 16-19 upper-secondary system.

We should not underestimate what a departure this policy is from the way all previous governments, Liberal, Labour and Conservative, have pursued a mixed market economy in qualifications, allowing exam boards and AOs to own, reshape and retire qualifications as they see fit.  

Ministers talk a lot about quality. Yet, the criteria or “3 tests” that the government will be applying to the overlap with T Levels, have no quality test contained within them. Instead, the exercise is simply about measuring whether the occupational content in the legacy L3 qualifications competes with the content of the new T-Levels.

Defunding the Legacy Qualifications by August 2024

Where that is the case, the government intends to defund the legacy qualifications by August 2024. Note, before that deadline, a general election is expected to take place, meaning that these momentous decisions will probably become a manifesto issue for the main parties.

To be fair, the government have listened intently over the past 12 months to the FE sector, particularly since the new ministerial team arrived last autumn. Don’t forget it was only last July that DfE officials were briefing sector stakeholders that 16-19 qualifications in future, other than A Levels and T Levels, would be extremely rare.

To some extent the major shift in allowing more qualifications to survive at Level 3 has been forced on a government that experienced the cross-party backlash in the House of Lords, during the passage of the Skills Act. Coordinated lobbying by the likes of the Protect Student Choice campaign has also helped.

Peers, including former distinguished education ministers, just didn’t buy the argument that a state owned monopoly in qualifications is the answer to preparing our young people for a post pandemic labour market that will look very different to the one the Sainsbury Skills Panel was reviewing in 2016.

At the Federation, we will continue to support our members developing T Levels. And we will also continue to make the case, with our members, for why a properly regulated, mixed market economy of qualifications, will always be a more superior model of delivery than simply accepting the notion that technocrats in Whitehall always know best.

England has embarked on a massive gamble of state control. Ultimately, it will be for future historians to decide whether ministers made the right call.

By Tom Bewick, chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies and the presenter of the Skills World Live Radio Show broadcast by FE News.

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