The government has announced a review of the design of vocational qualifications for 16 -19 year olds. The proposal is to give the new Tech Levels (T-levels) and Applied General Qualifications the same status in the school league tables as A Levels. Although this is a welcome move towards giving equal status to all types of study, we have some concerns about the implementation of the proposals.
The Association of Employment and Learning Providers (AELP) is in favour of rigorous and responsive vocational qualifications that enable all young people to take a wide variety of pathways through to further study, an apprenticeship or a job. Classifying the different qualifications into academic and vocational may still mean that young people do not have the flexibility to take the best programme of study. Our view has always been that young people must have the option of taking more practical programmes from 14 onwards but that they should have the opportunity to move between the various qualification pathways.
Taking more practical qualifications should not mean that a young person has chosen a path that means they will not progress to degree level study. Far from it. Many young people are taking apprenticeships that will lead them on to degree level programmes and beyond. Of course, we need parity of esteem between what we have called academic and vocational courses but we also need flexibility.
Many providers have questioned the benefit of categorising vocational qualifications into two different types (‘tech levels’ and applied general qualifications), believing there is a danger in forcing 16 year olds to choose between highly differentiated qualification categories that would take them in specific, and separate, directions. The fear is that many, if not most, of these learners will not be ready to make such important decisions about their future progression route at this stage and we need to support the development of recognisable and valued transferable skills that keep their option open.
There is currently a very wide range of vocational course delivered in schools and colleges and the government is setting out some criteria for those that will count towards the league tables. Care needs to be taken in setting these criteria and the danger is that the criteria will reflect established academic principles rather than those that will ensure that vocational qualifications for this age group prepare the young person to enter and progress into sustainable employment – a lifetime at work.
That being the case, any vocational qualifications must be fit for that purpose, ideally linked to the workplace. Whilst they must of course cover any underpinning knowledge required to do the job properly, competence based assessment linked to real work environments is a key principle and must be at the core of any new qualifications.
The government has signalled the involvement of employers and universities in the review of these vocational qualifications but it is essential that training providers are involved in the analysis and approval of the qualifications that will be included in the tables. It is thought that up to 80% of the current vocational qualifications will not be recognised in the tables but reductions of that scale need to be carefully managed.
Many of those qualifications would have been established to respond to the needs of young people and employers. Exam boards will need to demonstrate their qualifications’ quality by getting sign-up from employers or higher education institutions. Training providers already have good relationships with employers and can be helpful in developing the knowledge of the new system. Moreover it is very important that businesses of all sizes are involved in this review. AELP members work with over 350,000 employers, many of whom are SMEs.
It will be particularly important to ensure that learners understand the difference between the two types of vocational qualifications so that they are able to opt for qualifications that will best support career progression. Employers will need to be aware of how the qualifications differ so that they appreciate which qualifications best prepare learners to take on roles within their sector and how the different qualifications can be used to develop individuals to meet the skills needs of the business.
This will be a long-term programme of developing the information for both learners and employers. The challenge comes at a time when most of the face to face independent careers advice and guidance has been removed from the schools. We have an online careers service but we will need a major initiative to give young people the information they need to make the right choices and to ensure that employers understand the changes that are proposed by the government. Training providers and in particular AELP members will work with schools, colleges and employers to make this information available. However the onus is on government to fund and facilitate that process.
Finally, as we move into a period where there will be some major changes in the education system, we need to establish a clear direction of travel and ensure that employers are given an opportunity to contribute and to secure some stability for the long term. Constant change for the sake of change can only make the improvements we all want to see more difficult. Vocational qualifications must be part of any flexible, effective education and training system for young people.
Stewart Segal is chief executive of the Association of Employment and Learning Providers