From education to employment

Government must pause post-16 education shake-up or risk making skills shortages worse, MPs warns

Government must pause post-16 education shake-up or risk making skills shortages worse, MPs warns

Rushing ahead with major reforms to post-16 qualifications risks leaving young people stranded without suitable qualification pathways and deepening worker shortages in key sectors, the Education Committee says in a new report.

This is due to the Department for Education’s (DfE’s) plans to withdraw funding from tried and tested Applied General Qualifications (AGQs), such as BTECs, before there is sufficient time for the evaluation and rollout of T Levels, the recently introduced technical alternative to A Levels.

The Committee’s report The future of post-16 qualifications urges DfE to place a moratorium on the withdrawal of funding for AGQs until there is robust evidence that T Levels are demonstrably more effective at helping students progress, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility. This argument was made by the vast majority of those who submitted evidence to the inquiry.

The cross-party Committee finds that withdrawing funding for many AGQs prematurely risks constricting student choice and narrowing progression opportunities. This could in turn lead to an increase in the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET).

Meanwhile, the introduction of T Levels Since 2019 has been weakened by concern over unequal regional access to industry placements (the mandatory 9-week component of the programme), scalability concerns, and an apparent decline in employer interest in offering placements. T Levels will not succeed without significant industry buy-in.

The Committee argues that the ability of businesses large and small to offer sufficient, high-quality placements, and a clear track record of T Level success, should be prerequisites to scrapping AGQs.

MPs heard that T Levels may not be accessible to students with lower academic attainment or with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND). DfE introduced the T Level Transition Programme for learners who require an additional year of preparation, but only 14% of the programme’s first cohort of students moved onto a T Level a figure the Committee calls “entirely inadequate”.

The report also notes the dramatic 41% decline in under-19s starting apprenticeships between 2015/16 and 2021/22. New starts on level 2 (GCSE equivalent) apprenticeships fell 69% over the same period.

The majority of apprenticeships are instead undertaken by older, more qualified adults. The Committee urges the Government to address this and make apprenticeships the gold-standard ‘earn and learn’ option for young people.

MPs also call for a “wholesale review” of 16-19 funding after hearing about the difficulties the sector faced due to real terms reductions in funding between 2010 and 2020.

Education Committee Chair Robin Walker MP said: 

“We welcome the Government’s ambition to declutter the post-16 landscape and raise the status of technical qualifications. The Prime Minister was right when he hailed further education as a silver bullet that could boost productivity by giving workers the right skills for an evolving economy. 

“We were also buoyed by evidence that T Levels are proving successful. But it is essential that DfE promotes them among students and the thousands of employers needed to supply work placements, or else T Levels will fail to make a meaningful difference.

“We have concerns about the feasibility of scaling up T Levels, and as it stands, the planned withdrawal of AGQs will constrict student choice and could deepen the skills shortages that these reforms are meant to fix, including in vital sectors such as social care – effectively pulling the rug from under the further education system. We call for a moratorium on these reforms until T Levels are fully rolled out and there is robust evidence to show they adequately replace AGQs.

“Ministers must also ensure T Levels don’t leave students unrewarded for their efforts. Clear pathways need to be established to ensure T Level graduates can seamlessly progress to a range of destinations including undergraduate degrees, apprenticeships and Higher Technical Qualifications.

“We also call on DfE to reverse the sharp decline in apprenticeship starts and address the perverse situation where the majority of apprenticeships are being given to older, already highly qualified adults at the expense of young people, and the taxpayer.”

What are T Levels?

T Levels began in 2019/20. They are two-year, level 3 courses (broadly equivalent to three A Levels) that include a nine-week industry placement. Sixteen of the 24 planned T Level courses are now in operation in fields including agriculture, business and management, craft and design, and legal services. The Committee heard up to 250,000 industry placements a year may be needed once they are fully rolled out. 

The problems that T Levels are meant to solve

Witnesses told the Committee that the landscape of post-16 qualifications is varied, complex and fails to equip students with skills the economy needs, or to prepare young people for the world of work.

The Committee recommends that DfE set an ambitious target for at least 75% of young people to be qualified to level 3 (T Level or A Level equivalent) by 2030, up from 62% in 2021. Within this target should be a concentrated effort to prioritise skills for the future economy.

What needs fixing?

Experts said the first cohort of T Levels went “very well” and that they are an improvement on BTECs and AGQs. But chapter 3 of the report highlights issues that need addressing:

  • Research from 2021 suggested the majority of young people hadn’t heard of T Levels. DfE research also showed employers’ interest in providing T Level work placements fell between 2019-2021, from 36% to 30%.
  • The one-year Transition Programme was designed to make the qualification more accessible, but just 14% of its first cohort progressed to a T Level.
  • A lack of data to show how effective T Levels are at supporting student progression into skilled employment, apprenticeships and higher education.
  • Around one-fifth of the first cohort of T Level students dropped out as they proved challenging for students with lower academic attainment, or who have SEND.
  • Because of their specialist nature, many universities aren’t accepting T Levels alone for undergraduate degrees and are additionally requiring relevant A Levels.

DfE must fast-track publication of data on the education, apprenticeship, and employment destinations for the first cohort of T Level students in order to inform further decisions. It must work with the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education to clearly map progression opportunities for T Level students to help reduce uncertainty and demonstrate how they can be a springboard to further study, training and work.

The Department should launch an awareness campaign to improve recognition of T Levels among students, parents and employers. It should also convene an employer-led industry placement taskforce to tackle the current lack of awareness, with particular emphasis on incorporating the views of small and medium-sized enterprises. Until July 2022, employers could claim £1,000 for every T Level industry placement. DfE should reinstate this incentive for SMEs.

Don’t rush to defund AGQs

The current timeline for withdrawing funding for AGQs doesn’t allow sufficient time for the evaluation of T Levels to evidence that they will be a suitable replacement across all subject areas. The Sixth Form Colleges Association said DfE should “wait for evidence… before making potentially irreversible and hugely damaging decisions”. The Institute of Directors and the Association of Employers and Learning Providers gave similar warnings.

There were concerns that the changes would disproportionately impact children with SEND or those living in areas of the country in which T Levels are less well established. We heard that learners who are unable or unwilling to complete T Levels or A levels could be left without an appropriate study programme, which could result in an inadvertent rise in 16-18 NEET rates.

DfE’s plans for AGQs put students at risk of not having options to enrol on either T Level or AGQ courses. This is a threat to the pipeline of skills needed by employers and the economy.

The Department must place a moratorium on defunding tried and tested AGQs until there is robust evidence that T Levels are more effective in preparing students for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility.

Reverse the decline in apprenticeships

The Committee heard that a high proportion of apprenticeships are being taken up by older, well educated people. The number of places going to under-19s fell by 41% between 2015/16 and 2021/22, and particularly concerning was the 69% drop in the number of starts on intermediate apprenticeships (GCSE equivalent). There was a 19% increase in young people starting apprenticeships in 2021, but it remains to be seen if this was a rebound from the pandemic. 

DfE must commission an independent review of possible mechanisms to reverse the decline in young people taking up apprenticeships. It could, for example, reform the apprenticeship levy to incentivise firms to offer places to younger learners, and allow SMEs to share apprentices.

We need more maths teachers

In January the Prime Minister proposed making the study of a maths qualification compulsory up to age 18 and highlighted the growing importance of analytical, data and statistical skills. In addition to A Level maths, students can take a level 3 core maths qualification which offers real-world, applied maths including financial topics. But this is offered by only a small number of schools and colleges and there were just 11,791 entries in 2020.

Meanwhile, the Committee heard that DfE has missed its targets for recruiting qualified maths teachers every year for the last 11 years.

We believe more students should have the opportunity to study a level 3 core maths qualification, as A Level maths will not be appropriate for all. The Government should also consider a qualification or accreditation in numeracy as an alternative to requiring those who fail GCSE maths to sit re-examinations.

DfE must work with the sector to clearly set out how it will tackle the recruitment and retention challenges with qualified maths teachers and build a stronger foundation of numeracy and mathematical skills and knowledge at GCSE and below.

Review FE funding

The Government announced an extra £2.3 billion of funding for further education in 2021, followed by a further £125 million for 2023/24. The most recent boost comprised 2.2% increase in the 16-19 base rate of funding, and £40m for specific subjects including engineering, construction and digital subjects. The Institute for Fiscal Studies said colleges and sixth forms are “in a particularly difficult position” and that the new funding “will only partially reverse the large cuts that took place up to 2020”.

The Committee urges the Government to undertake a wholesale review of 16-19 funding, including offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students.

Sector Response

Prof. Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies, said:

“This damning report from a cross-party group of MPs should send shockwaves through the Department for Education.

“The warning signs about the scope, scale and deliverability of these post-16 qualification reforms have been known for some time. What the committee have helpfully done is brought together, in one place, just how concerned the whole sector is about the potential, in future, for complete systemic market failure in post-16 education and skills –  particularly if the government does not heed the many thoughtful recommendations made by MPs.

“Our starting part, as a Federation of Awarding Bodies, is that we really want these technical education reforms to work. We agree with ministers that the prize we must secure in England is a world-class skills and apprenticeship system that is the envy of other countries. But we won’t achieve such a goal by wiping out perfectly good, well tried and tested qualifications, in order to make successful, by fiat, the government’s view of what 16 to 19 year olds should be allowed to study from September 2025. 

“Neither will the imposition of outdated and dogmatic forms of external assessment of VTQs, particularly where these interventions fail to recognise that successful vocational training requires non-academic forms of assessment.  

“It is not too late to take stock of these reforms. We would support the committee’s call for a moratorium on defunding qualifications at level 3 and below, until such time that it can be shown the impact of removing funding will not impact adversely on disadvantaged groups. It is astonishing that the Department for Education openly admits some negative impact on learners and those with protected characteristics, but doesn’t seem able to share with Parliament exactly what numbers will be affected. Meanwhile, the ESC report finds that only 14% of learners in the government’s T level transition programme progressed to enrol on the study programme full-time.

“We recognise what the committee have said about the state of apprenticeship policy in England. No amount of spin or hype can get away from the fact that employer commencements are significantly down on previous historical periods; the under-25 are getting a raw deal; and the lack of transparency about the levy and performance of the system overall, is hampering the sector’s desire to improve participation, achievement rates and quality.”

David Hughes, Association of Colleges said:

“Colleges are positively contributing to the growth of T Levels and I believe they can become highly respected qualifications in time, but the hasty defunding of other qualifications is not necessary for T Levels to succeed. AoC and college leaders have consistently warned of the enormous risks involved in defunding existing qualifications before T Levels have been tested and become established. 

“It is very welcome and timely that the cross-party Education Committee has highlighted the challenges in terms of accessibility around T Levels and ensuring there are sufficient industry placements. I hope the Department for Education, the Institute for Technical Education and Apprenticeships and Ofqual will now consider this report carefully and act upon it to ensure all students have suitable study options post-16.

“The DfE’s own impact assessment warns that tens of thousands of young people could have no qualification to work towards because the barrier to entry for T Levels is too high and the programme and assessment is unrealistic for many. Meanwhile, there are simply not enough industry placements to meet all student demand, particularly in some parts of the country. Withdrawing funding for applied generals will also reduce opportunities for adults to upskill and retrain, as adult students often infill places on these courses.

“A large proportion of school leavers are not ready for level 3 study when they leave school. Greater investment is needed in 16 to 19 education at level 2 and below to prepare students for a level 3 study programme, whether that is an A Level, a T Level or an applied general.

“The committee also rightly highlights the stark drop in the numbers of young people taking apprenticeships and the cuts to funding for 16 to 19 education over the last 12 years. Both need addressing urgently as the real-world impact is being acutely felt in sectors like construction and social care which are struggling with labour shortages as a result.”

Julie McCulloch, Director of Policy at the Association of School and College Leaders, said:

“The government’s reckless rush to jettison BTECs and similar qualifications before T-levels are properly embedded has been opposed by pretty much everybody in the education sector. We’ve repeatedly warned that this risks leaving many thousands of students without a viable post-16 pathway, causing huge damage to their future life chances.

“However, ministers have dug their heels in and appear to be determined to scrap a proven set of qualifications which lead to higher education, apprenticeships and careers without having the slightest idea of how well T-levels will work in practice. We can only hope that they now pay heed to the warnings of the Education Select Committee and introduce a more sensible and measured approach which is in the interests of young people.

“We also echo the committee’s call for a review of 16-19 funding. Even with recent and belated improvements in government funding, the allocations for post-16 education are hopelessly inadequate. The government constantly talks about a skills revolution but does not provide anything like the investment needed to turn this rhetoric into reality.”

Bill Watkin, Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said:

“We are very pleased that the Education Committee has backed calls from the Protect Student Choice campaign to pause the withdrawal of applied general qualifications (AGQs) such as BTECs. Today’s report echoes the campaign’s message that these qualifications serve a distinct and different purpose to the government’s new T Levels, and scrapping BTECs will leave many young people without a viable pathway to higher education or employment. The report notes that the vast majority of evidence received by the Education Committee – from both education and employers – expressed concern about the impact of withdrawing funding for AGQs. This highlights how isolated and out of touch ministers are on this issue.

As the cross-party Education Committee is now backing calls from the Protect Student Choice coalition and the wider group of students, parents, parliamentarians, and employers that support the campaign, we hope that ministers will finally start to listen and rethink their damaging proposals. The life chances of tens of thousands of young people will put at serious risk if the government does not pause its misguided plan to scrap most BTEC qualifications. We hope the publication of today’s report encourages the government to adopt a balanced and evidence-based approach to policymaking in this area”.

NFER Research Director on education to employment and social mobility, Dr Lisa Morrison Coulthard, said:

“We strongly support the report’s emphasis on the need for caution and further evaluation on the effectiveness of T Levels as the primary technical route to further education and employment. Our own research indicates the qualification has issues in terms of accessibility and suitability which present new challenges and barriers for young people, especially those who are disadvantaged. We therefore support the call for a delay in the removal of funding for tried and tested Applied General Qualifications (AGQs) until the evidence confirms T Levels are an effective pathway and vehicle for social mobility.

“We echo calls for the Government to commission a review of the long-term decline in 16–19-year-old apprenticeship starts. Evidence on the impact of this decline is clear – the number of opportunities for young people transitioning from education to employment is being severely hampered. Finally, we welcome the call for a review of 16-19 funding, including offering more targeted support for disadvantaged students. The FE sector has been subject to decades of underfunding and investment is urgently needed to ensure the delivery of post-16 education and training which gives young people the right skills for the future.”

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘Our union, and others in the sector, have been calling on the government to rethink its plan to cut funding for established courses such as BTECs whist at the same time rushing into the rollout of T-levels. I welcome calls from the Education Select Committee to pause the current shakeup; pushing ahead with the government’s plans would be likely to make the current skills shortage worse.

‘Scrapping BTECs would shut down a key entry route into higher education for those that don’t take A levels. This will be disastrous for widening participation, as Black and Asian students are more likely to use BTECs to get into university, as are students from working class backgrounds.  Ministers should take on board the finding of this report, stop these hasty and unhelpful reforms, invest in the sector and let staff get on with the job of teaching their students.’

David Phillips, Managing Director, City & Guilds:

“This report makes clear that the pace and scale of proposed technical education reform provides real challenges for learning centres, colleges, awarding organisations and learners themselves.

“Take T Levels for example. While we fully support the new T Levels qualifications, one of the challenges facing them is a low level of awareness among the public and employers. For these qualifications to have the greatest impact, we need a collaborative approach with government, employers and colleges working closely to demonstrate their value and efficacy. Working with industry and professional bodies will also be critical in helping to secure more industry placements for learners and raising awareness among key audiences, particularly SMEs.

“The report also highlights the need for a review of funding reform for 16-19 year olds, a measure City & Guilds has advocated for in the past. In particular, the decline in the number of apprenticeship starts since the introduction of the Levy among young people and those from disadvantaged backgrounds is an issue that must be tackled to properly address skills shortages and improve social mobility.

“One of the strengths of the current system is the flexibility which it affords to learners and training providers. However, this can leave some learners and employers unclear on the value of different qualifications.

“What is needed are accessible routes to learning and it is essential to keep the doors open to that learning by protecting valuable entry level qualifications to support a more equal playing field for all.”

  • The Committee received 121 written evidence submissions from organisations, universities, colleges, individuals, the Department for Education and other agencies. Access them here.
  • Seven oral evidence sessions were held with witnesses including school and college leaders, sector associations, business groups and the Minister for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon MP, under whose Chairmanship the Select Committee started the inquiry. Transcripts of the sessions are available here.
  • The inquiry also received evidence from 276 T Level students across 19 providers.

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