Last September saw the introduction of a set of major changes to education and training for 14-19 year olds. Here we explain why the reforms have been brought in and how they are impacting post-16 education.

Employers and universities have been calling for some time for better prepared recruits with the right type of skills, knowledge and experience. In addition, many people have been confused by the sheer range of different qualifications available to young people and have often been unclear about their educational value.

Recognising that the education system needed updating, the Government has started to introduce a clear set of learning routes for 14 to 19 year olds, which will incorporate a mixture of revised and new qualifications and ensure that all young people leave this stage of their learning with the skills and knowledge essential for future success.

From 2013 a new set of entitlements will be in place for learners from age 14 up. This includes the Diploma, a new qualification which combines classroom learning with practical hands-on experience. Apprenticeships are increasing in number to cover more sectors and the Foundation Learning Tier, which provides a comprehensive range of progression pathways for students who are not yet ready for Level 2 qualifications, is now being piloted. Finally, A levels and GCSEs have been made more robust and challenging. Flexibility is built in, with programmes sufficiently broad for learners to change at key points, moving from GCSEs onto a Diploma or an Apprenticeship, for example, or from a Diploma onto A levels.

The new choices for learners will support the first increase in the age at which young people leave compulsory education for many years; from 2013 learners will stay in education or training until the age of 17 and from 2015, until 18. FE institutions can expect to see a significant increase in the number of students enrolling, as they transfer from schools to complete their study. Many of these may well have had their first taste of college while still at school, doing a Diploma or other KS4 programme which the college is involved in teaching.


Functional and personal skills

One of the strengths of the new 14-19 programmes is that they all incorporate functional skills in mathematics, English and ICT. Functional skills are the essential skills that young people need for life, work and study. They are built into the new GCSEs to be taught from September 2010 and are key components of the Diploma, Apprenticeships and the FLT, so all young people should gain these skills that are in such demand by employers. Learners from age 11 up will also develop personal, learning and thinking skills such as presentation, team work and critical thinking. These are now incorporated into the secondary curriculum, so learners are more likely to arrive at college already competent in these areas.


A levels

A levels continue to be a key part of post 16 education, but have now undergone an overhaul to make them more challenging. The content of exam papers has become more stretching, and questions are more open-ended and less prescriptive, requiring greater thought and more detailed written answers. From 2010, A level students will be able to gain an A* grade to recognise the highest levels of achievement.


The Extended Project

The Extended Project is now available as a standalone qualification worth half an A level at A2 level. It’s an important feature of the Advanced Diploma. It allows students to pursue an area of special interest, giving them the opportunity to develop the type of independent learning skills that universities are looking for.



Apprenticeships are a popular choice with young people and the range is being expanded which means that that one in five of all young people should be able to undertake an Apprenticeship within the next decade. By 2013, all appropriately qualified young people will be entitled to an Apprenticeship place post 16.


The Diploma

The Diploma has been developed in consultation with employers, universities, schools and FE to ensure courses are motivating and relevant. It combines classroom learning with practical hands-on experience, allowing students to develop and apply their theoretical understanding in a work-relevant context while finding out more about their career options. The Diploma is a composite qualification that includes functional skills, a project and at least ten days’ work experience.

The Diploma is available at three levels - Foundation, Higher and Advanced. The Advanced Diploma is the equivalent of three and half A levels and can provide access to university, just as A levels do. The Diploma qualification is now widely supported by universities.

Professor Steve Smith, Vice-Chancellor at University of Exeter and outgoing Chair of the 1994 Group has said, "Young people who take a Diploma can gain valuable skills such as such as independent learning and critical thinking - the kind of attributes we look for in prospective students applying to study at leading universities".

The Diploma is being introduced in phases. We are just at the end of the first year of teaching the first five subjects, including Construction and the Built Environment and Creative and Media. By 2013 there will be a total of 17 Diploma subjects available across England.

These landmark educational reforms are designed to ensure that young people are better prepared for higher and further education and work. In today’s challenging environment, it is more important than ever that young people leaving education have the skills and knowledge to succeed in a range of different industries and are motivated to achieve to the highest possible level they can.


Further information and resources

  • The 14-19 Reforms and You toolkit - a practical resource to help leaders and managers in colleges disseminate key information. For details on how to order please see


Article supplied by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF)


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