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Ensuring qualifications alignment with the needs on the ground

Tom Bewick, FAB

@TomBewick, chief executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies (@AwardingBodies ) Keynote speech to the Westminster Education Forum (@WeFEvents), 30 June 2021 

Thanks for inviting me to this event today to talk about the Level 3 and below qualifications review.

As the audience will probably know, this reform goes back at least a decade to the time of the Wolf Review, when vocational and technical qualification were first placed under the spotlight. More recently, we’ve seen the two-stage consultation on the future of L3 and below qualifications, which in many ways, should be viewed alongside the reform of Level 4 and 5 qualifications; the introduction of new T-Levels, over 600 apprenticeship standards replacing the old frameworks; and the introduction of the government’s so-called Lifetime Skills Guarantee.

It’s also worth highlighting some other bigger picture trends: because despite all the policy hyperactivity and clamour for reform in recent years, people in the sector have just lived through a decade in which England lost over 2 million adult learning opportunities; FE colleges have had their funding reduced by 7 per cent in real terms (per student) since 2010 – an annual deficit of around £1.4 billion according to the IFS; and employers still regularly complain about skills shortages.

To say our journey towards a genuinely world-class technical education and skills system is a ‘work-in-progress’ is a major understatement. 

That said, we should welcome the fact the government has publicly committed England to being a world-leading skills system, overtaking Germany by 2030, even if the politicians making these promises are unlikely still to be in office by then.

At least it gives us all a clear goal to aim towards. (Just like those England footballers, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane managed to do, finally, at Wembley last night).

I would like to cover three main points in my talk to you today:
  1. Explain why the direction of travel of the review is potentially detrimental to the interests of learners’ and localities’.
  2. Share with you some of the concerns the Federation has highlighted to government about the qualifications review; and finally;
  3. Give you a sense of what Awarding Organisations will be tracking as we eagerly anticipate the conclusion of the review; including the passage of the Skills Bill currently going through Parliament.

Let’s turn first to the importance of diversity, choice, sector and place in our qualifications system.

Ministers have made a big deal of talking about the, “ridiculous number of qualifications”, on the current funding register. They’ve said 12,000 non-degree qualifications is evidence of “proliferation” and a “bloated marketplace.”

What they don’t mention though, is that there are at least 50,000 different publicly funded degree courses in the UK today. Would Ministers dream of telling higher education that it provides too many courses. Moreover, would they dare encroach upon the substantial autonomous awarding powers that our universities enjoy?

Of course not. They wouldn’t dream of it.

Yet, in Further Education, that is precisely the era we are now entering. The government wants to control the vocational market to a very significant degree. It also wants to tell local FE colleges what they can provide, by signing off on their Local Skills Improvement Plans. In future, it is quite possible – and the Skills Bill certainly enables the powers – for Whitehall to direct local 16-19 institutions to provide only specific categories of qualifications. Not too dissimilar to the way the government already tells all state schools to follow the National Curriculum.

Take a typical market town in England that has one sixth form college and a general FE college. In future, the secretary of state will have the power to say to the town’s sixth form college, these are the list of A-Levels you can provide; and to the FE college, these are the T-Levels that we want you to deliver. And by the way, we want you to close down your academic provision and these other Level 3 vocational courses because the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education no longer accredits them.

So, let’s look again at the 12,000 vocational qualifications figure I mentioned earlier – if you recall, 12,000 is the egregious figure policymakers like to highlight in Departmental press releases criticising vocational qualifications. The truth is that over 5000 qualifications of these quals have not certificated since 2015. They are obsolete. And the taxpayer only covers the cost of certified learners; not for the existence of moribund or unused qualifications on the register.

Of the 7,000 or so qualifications remaining, only around 1200 are at Level 3, including A-Levels and applied generals like BTECs. So, already, you can start to see how the idea of massive market proliferation is rather a flaky argument. It’s a propaganda tool deployed by decision-makers to justify the substantial upheaval we will all now have to go through.

In fact, if you looked at the vocational education systems in the United States, Canada and Australia, you would actually find England has a lower number of vocational and technical courses approved for public funding than these other countries do. One reason for this is that there are about 75,000 occupational job roles in advanced economies today, according to the labour market intelligence experts EMSI and Burning Glass.

Complex labour markets, where some of the job roles of 2030, have not yet been invented, demand an agile system of qualifications development. Developing quals for the green industrial revolution is a great example of where that agility, responsive and flexibility will be needed.

Many of my members feel that, if we are not careful, the government is in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater with these planned reforms.

The AOs that are members of FAB are all highly regulated. They only respond to market need. Like any business, they have no incentive to develop products and services that people and local communities don’t want or need.

Over 60 per cent of AOs are charities delivering for public benefit. Commercial AOs are bound by the same regulations. Most regulated AOs are not big players, they service niche and specialist occupational sectors. With over 5 million certifications of regulated UK qualifications sold abroad last year, AOs are actually one of this country’s great export success stories. Yet, they receive very little credit from ministers for what they do.

And rather than trying to cut down on diversity and choice in the marketplace, we should actually be encouraging AOs, colleges and providers to forge closer community partnerships and tailor even more courses – often short-sharp courses – to local employment and learner needs.

So, moving onto my second point, what more concerns does the Federation have about the emerging qualifications landscape?

We said in our submission to government that we think the binary choice model for 16-19 education, of A-Levels or T-Levels, in future, would be a really retrograde step and a big policy mistake.

The mix and match approach to post-16 choices; often with students combining – for example – A-Levels with applied generals, is something that is really popular amongst parents and learners.

So what problem exactly is Government trying to fix here?

We know that existing vocational qualifications at level 3 are valued by both employers and learners. Ofqual’s own (2020) research on drivers of choice for centres (i.e. schools, colleges and ITPs) highlights how 92 per cent of them choose to deliver qualifications that interest their learners; 83 per cent of these quals have proved to be effective for learner progression; and 66 per cent of respondents stated that they deliver qualifications that are desired by local employers.

Why simply defund qualifications that already meet these needs?

This really restrictive, limitation of learner choice, is not looking much good for adults either. Just observe the debate around the Lifetime Skills Guarantee. Only 400 courses, of potentially 1200 regulated qualifications, have been selected so far. To make matters worse, the eligibility criteria are extremely complex. A redundant airline worker, in their 30s, for example; perhaps wanting to retrain in a stem subject occupation like a lab tech, is barred from accessing the scheme if they already have passed one or more A-Levels a decade or so earlier. Around 9 million adults without a degree, according to House of Commons Library research are currently excluded in this way – about a quarter of the total workforce.

Moreover, the government’s own impact assessment of these reforms says that the numbers of 16-24 year old NEETs is likely to increase. And those with Special Educational Needs (SEN), in really niche qualification areas, could also lose out. None of this sounds good for social mobility.

Indeed, you really have to ask: how is this policy living up to the rhetoric of levelling up and re-skilling our society as we emerge from the pandemic?

Finally, to conclude with my third point: what will the Federation and my members be watching closely over the coming months?

Well, we are expecting to see the details of the L3 review finally being published before recess – perhaps mid-to-late July.

Once we are through this summer’s extraordinary arrangements, i.e. teacher assessed grades; I think more attention and wider scrutiny will turn to the future qualifications landscape.

With the Skills Bill becoming law by autumn, it will become ever more apparent that the days of FE providers having significant autonomy and choice over their local curriculum offer are numbered.

We will start to understand more fully how deep the rationalisation of qualifications at L3 and below will go; and we will start to see more college principals and civic leaders around the country asking why such a power-grab by Whitehall was allowed to happen.

Of course, there are many positive things we would welcome about the technical education reforms underway. But in this speech today, I wanted to set out clearly why the qualification review, longer-term, may turn out to be a really backwards step for learner choice and FE provider autonomy in this country. But as the old saying goes: only time will tell.

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