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Review of Post 16 Qualifications at Level 3 – Good or Bad News for Choice and Access and Participation in Higher Education?

Adrian Anderson

The Government’s review of level 3 post 16 qualifications, consultation on the second stage of which closes on 31st January 2021, is likely to mean fundamental change for young people, employers and higher education. From a marketing perspective the proposed future mainstream offers of an academic option, ‘A’ Levels, a new technical option, the ‘T’ level, or an Apprenticeship sounds appealing. But in reality will such an offer be good or bad news for 16 to 18 year olds in terms of choice, access and participation in higher education?

As the consultation notes, A levels offer an understood and excellent preparation for Higher Education, but what of the other two mainstream options outlined, T levels and Apprenticeships?

The new technical option T levels, deserves to be a success

A high quality relatively narrow technical route based on the knowledge, skills and behaviours specified in an occupational standard for 16 – 18 year olds, committed to gaining a first job in a particular occupation, could provide a new high quality option. The good news is that choice will be expanded and T levels do something new, providing a technical route to skilled employment and potentially higher technical qualifications and higher education. UVAC will do all it can to support the higher education sector to develop progression routes from T levels to Higher and Degree Apprenticeships, higher technical education and bachelors degrees.

I do, however, suspect that T level numbers will not grow rapidly in coming years. Firstly, T level numbers will be limited by the availability of high quality industry placements, particularly in the context of a post Covid 19 economy, indeed some T levels will be unavailable in some localities. T level provision must fundamentally reflect local labour market needs.

Secondly, T levels will be a good choice for a relatively small proportion of the 16 – 18 cohort, i.e. aspirational young people who have a very clear understanding of what first job they want.

Whisper it quietly, but I think Apprenticeship opportunities for 16 – 18 year-olds will, in the future, be very limited

Apprenticeships are seen as the third core option for 16 – 18 year-olds. There is, however, a problem here. Whisper it quietly, but I think Apprenticeship opportunities for 16 – 18 year-olds will, in the future, be very limited. Certainly, some highly valuable craft and trade Apprenticeships in construction and engineering will be offered. Elsewhere, however, numbers will not recover significantly from the decline experienced in recent years and particularly during the pandemic.

Employers will increasingly focus on using the Apprenticeship to recruit and train older new and existing employees for the higher skilled occupations they need. Some may decry this trend, but I can’t see Government stopping the NHS from spending its levy on training new nurses or stopping Police Forces using the levy to train police constables.

In the private sector, employers are and will increasingly focus on using Apprenticeship to tackle skills gaps. This means a far lower spend on Apprenticeships in retail, catering, hospitality, business administration and customer service, the mainstay of 16 – 18 Apprenticeship provision and the occupations most adversely affected by the Covid 19 pandemic.

What is the option for individuals not wanting to undertake A levels and not certain of the occupation they want to train for?

I would suggest that the fundamental problem with focusing on three mainstream options; academic A levels and the narrow technical options T levels and Apprenticeships is that the needs of a large group of learners is not met. What is the option for individuals not wanting to undertake A levels and not certain of the occupation they want to train for?

Historically, the answer has been Applied Generals, the most well known example being the BTEC National. Approximately 200,000 students took Applied Generals in 2018 (300,000 took A levels), with some taking a combination of both. Around 20% of 18 year olds applying to university held at least one Applied General qualification. The value of qualifications such as BTEC Nationals in supporting individuals access skilled employment and progress to higher education is recognised by employers and universities.

Regrettably, this value is not sufficiently recognised in the consultation. While there will be some opportunities to combine Applied Generals with A Levels, many existing delivery approaches will not be funded in the future. The consultation, gives the example of a student currently taking a large Applied General in business studies and A level maths, who in future would take A levels in business, maths and economics or a Business T Level.

Access and participation for underrepresented groups in higher education

Removal of funding for Applied Generals and some Applied General/A level combinations may also spell bad news for access and participation for underrepresented groups in higher education. Many universities have developed successful approaches to recruiting students offering Applied General qualifications to widen access and participation to underrepresented learner cohorts.

So what’s the answer?

So what’s the answer? Firstly let’s value choice and breadth in our 16 – 18 qualifications offer and provide the offer needed by young people in a post Covid 19 economy. Let’s also listen to the customer. If employers and universities believe Applied Generals, like BTEC Nationals are a valuable option and support progression to employment and higher education they should be funded. The mantra for T levels should be quality not numbers. Similarly, quality Apprenticeship places for 16 – 18 year-olds in a post Covid19 economy will be limited. So with limited potential for T level and Apprenticeship numbers, another mainstream alternative to A levels is needed. Applied Generals and Applied Generals combined with A levels ideally fulfil this role.

Adrian Anderson, Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council (UVAC)

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