From education to employment

The Advanced British Standard – ABS qualification?

Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

Rishi Sunak announces a new qualification, the Advanced British Standard, throwing planned qualification reforms into disarray. I question if this is the right way to improve vocational and technical education.

Before I start, I am fully cognisant of a theme developing through my articles. In many respects, I would rather not be using the precious small amount of spare time I have on a weekend feeling inclined to put metaphorical pen to paper and comment on policy again. I certainly did not anticipate another article on the subject quite so soon after the last.

Constant reform

One of my biggest issues with FE over 25 years of teaching, assessing, managing and leading teams, is the constant reform. It disrupts learning, increases workload for teachers and never actually solves the question it intends to ask (See the latest report by Tom Bewick and Matilda Gosling’s Running to Stand Still for example).

As with the HS2 question and subsequent concern, business in general performs best when things are planned and predictable and not subjected to avoidable turbulence. Education is no different, stability is crucial to success, allowing for strategic planning and giving time for operational embedding and organisational cultural shifts. We need time to stop, plan, consult, implement, reflect and change. The seemingly innocuous statement of ‘delivering maths until the age of 18’ for example, despite the good intention, is no more easily realised than solving the staffing crisis in the NHS. One does not simply hire and fire maths teachers on a whim, it takes a longer term strategy to produce skilled teachers, and an even longer one for skilled and experienced teachers. Small consideration, huge impact.

Making decisions on qualifications

Decisions on qualifications should be based on data and valid and relevant research. They should involve all stakeholders (including teachers, hint, hint). They should be built on a solid framework that is realistic, achievable and purposeful. They should certainly not be mired in fluffy language, subjective expectations, weak structures, or based on anecdotes – this benefits no one, increasing workload and diluting intended outcomes or worse, missing them entirely. As a wise person once said, ‘The nicest thing about not planning is that failure always comes as a complete surprise’.

Once a decision is reached, it should be tested. Piloted. Does it work? Does it need tweaking? Is it an unmitigated disaster? Is it a delightful success? Simply launching something new without listening to experienced people is a recipe for failure and results in instances, such as the T Level, where course specifications were released far too late in the academic calendar for practitioners to design a coherent programme. Much of the negative impact of the T Level could have been designed out, and criticism from organisations like Ofsted could have been mitigated. The conversation could have been very different.


But all of this now seems moot. The announcement of a new qualification, should of course it ever happen, seems to wipe out the T Level reform before it has even been rolled out. It suggests that the next level of reform, the Alternative Academic Qualification, announced in January this year, is now also under threat before we’ve so much as seen a draft. With Applied Generals going, uncertainty over the T Level, the AAQ maybe or maybe not happening and no solid information on sub-level three reform, I would say we are firmly in the middle of that turbulence now.

If the new qualification goes ahead, we need some of this thought, time and planning to happen before we rush in with ideological priorities. I remember starting in education and colleagues referring to this thing called the NVQ as the, ‘Not Very Qualified’ qualification. I hope that this new qualification doesn’t end up being referred to as ‘A BS’ qualification.

Neil Sambrook

By Neil Sambrook, Director of Faculty for STEAM at Walsall College

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