From education to employment

Lack of flexibility and modularisation linked to higher failure rates for post 16 qualifications

International progression report: good practice in technical education – Reviewing Post-16 Qualifications to Create a World Class Technical Education System 

Published today (10 Nov), this report by Sue Tate and Professor David Greatbatch was commissioned to inform the Department for Education’s review of post 16 qualifications at level 3 and below and in particular, to find out how England’s post-16 level 2 compared to that in other countries, and to offer insights into how other countries support progression in upper secondary level technical education.

The primary aims of this research were to:

  • Map England’s post-16 level 2 qualifications approach to those in other countries;
  • Explore how progression through the levels is supported and encouraged in other countries;
  • Examine the extent to which level 2 acts as a direct route to employment in other countries.

Eight countries were selected which included a mix of countries with similar demographics and challenges to England and those where technical education is recognised as a strength:

  1. Australia
  2. Denmark
  3. Finland
  4. France
  5. Germany
  6. the Netherlands
  7. New Zealand, and
  8. Norway

Evidence on the research questions in the selected countries was gathered through online searches, relevant bibliographic databases and reference searches. We also searched websites of national or regional education departments, statistical authorities and other relevant organisations and contacted country experts to determine whether they were able to provide access to additional information not in the public domain.

DfE are seeking views on proposals to reform post-16 technical and academic qualifications at level 3 

This consultation is the second stage of the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below in England.

It focuses on level 3 qualifications and seeks views on our proposals for the groups of qualifications that would continue to be funded alongside A levels and T Levels.

Gillian Keegan100x100Gillian Keegan, Apprenticeships and Skills Minister said:

We are overhauling the post-16 system to make sure it delivers for everyone. We are already taking action to make sure qualifications at level 3 are fit for purpose, but for too long courses at level 2 and below have been overlooked and undervalued – we want to fix that.

We want all students to be confident that whatever option they choose it will be high quality, valued by employers and will lead to an apprenticeship, further study or a great job. I encourage everyone from students to employers of all sizes to share their views so we can transform further education in this country.

The review’s aim is:

  • clearer qualifications choices for young people and adults
  • to ensure that every qualification approved for public funding has a distinct purpose, is high quality and supports progression to positive outcomes for students

This consultation closes at 

England is currently embarking on a period of transition in technical education for 16 to 19-year-olds through the introduction of T Levels. These are level 3 programmes which consist of a mixture of classroom-based learning and ‘on the job’ experience through an industry placement and will be an alternative to the academic route through A Levels and the work-based route through apprenticeships.

T Levels, the first of which started to be taught from September 2020, are two-year programmes equivalent in size and demand to three A Levels and are closely based on related apprenticeship standards.

The Government is reviewing post-16 qualifications to create a simpler, more understandable system.

Comparing England’s 4,000+ post-16 level 2 qualifications to those in other countries 

The premise of this research was to compare England’s post-16 level 2 (with options drawn from a potential list of over 4,000 qualifications) to that in other countries. Our examination of the upper secondary classroom-based programmes in eight countries demonstrated that level 2 equivalent qualifications are also a significant part of the offer in all of these countries, with the exception of Finland.

Other than in Australia, statistics on the relative proportion of students achieving at different levels at the end of upper secondary are not collected. This may be in part because the situation in most countries regarding completion of initial TVET is relatively fluid with entitlement to upper secondary TVET extending into adulthood; students moving into apprenticeship training in order to complete their qualification, possibly after a break; and/or opportunities to complete qualifications in work through building on credits achieved in classroom-based training.

Linking level 2 quals to occupations

Both our review of the literature and subsequent communications with country experts suggest that the number of students achieving at level 2 is not generally seen as problematic, although there are some concerns about employability where achievement is below the equivalent of level 2 (with the exception of France where there are concerns about some level 2 courses).

Where countries have a strong apprenticeship system, qualifications at the equivalent of level 2 are not generally seen as problematic as they relate to specific entry-level jobs (although there may be concerns about progression routes). Similarly, classroom-based qualifications at the equivalent of level 2 are generally linked to occupations at that level.

Apprenticeship as the prevailing model for initial TVET

In the majority of Northern European countries (Denmark, Norway, Germany and the Netherlands), apprenticeship remains the prevailing model for initial TVET, although in France and the Netherlands, the same qualifications are available either through technical schools or apprenticeships.

In Germany, the apprenticeship or technical school route is determined by sector, with occupations relating to health and social care and public service largely catered for outside of apprenticeships through classroom-based study.

Attaching qualifications to precise occupational roles in apprenticeships has the benefit of ensuring learning is matched to the needs of the role and employers can easily understand what a holder of the qualification knows and can do.

However, there are concerns about the extent to which early specialism develops the kind of flexibility and transferable skills needed for fast-changing, knowledge-based economies. Such concerns have begun to appear in the literature relating to Germany.

In both Germany and Norway, there are additional concerns about the extent to which apprenticeship opportunities are available for those who want them along with, in Germany, apprenticeship vacancies for which no suitable applicants have been found.

Higher failure rates linked to lack of modularisation and flexibility

In France and New Zealand, countries without such a strong apprenticeship tradition, concerns have been raised about the extent to which qualifications at level 2 equivalence or below enable young people to enter the jobs market. In France, where qualifications are not modularised and the same qualifications are available through classroom-based routes or apprenticeships, failure rates are comparatively high and, especially for those with level 2 equivalent qualifications, unemployment levels suggest a mismatch between the qualifications young people are achieving and labour market opportunities.

These concerns have led to a number of initiatives designed to encourage young people to continue or resume learning. By contrast, in Australia qualifications at this level are often regarded as offering clearer pathways into employment than those at level 3 equivalence. In Australia, the only country which collects and publishes data on this, most classroom based TVET is at level 2 equivalent or lower.

In Australia, Finland, the Netherlands and New Zealand, qualifications are modularised and allow for some degree of individual flexibility in the design of learning programmes. The use of modules that can appear in more than one occupational qualification also supports transferability and allows for adding credit to achieve full qualifications, for instance, when moving from school to work or when changing careers.

In Australia and New Zealand, the school leaving certificates at upper secondary level are awarded predominantly on the basis of the number and level of credits achieved, meaning programmes can lack coherence and make it difficult for employers to have confidence that young people have developed the right knowledge and skills to meet their needs. ‘Training Packages’ in Australia ‘Vocational Pathways’ in New Zealand and ‘Occupational Profiles’ in the Netherlands, mandated by industry, are intended to improve coherence.

Reinventing TVET programmes to make them fitter for current labour requirements

All of the countries in this study have made recent changes to their TVET system – or are in the process of doing so – to address perceived problems.

These can be grouped into 3 themes:

1. Grouping qualifications into broad occupational areas

The desire to bring more coherence to the qualification through the grouping of qualifications into broad occupational areas to support breadth and transferability in Denmark, France and Norway. This echoes the approach to T Levels in England through offering broader initial training with increased specialisation as the programme continues.

2. The relationship between classroom-based learning and work-based learning

A further issue for Norway is the problem of students being unable to complete their programme by moving from the two-year classroom-based provision to the apprenticeship stage of the programme. As a consequence, there is an ongoing exploration of how classroom-based alternatives can be made more similar to apprenticeships in order to improve participation and completion rates, raise levels of attainment and enhance the standing of these courses amongst employers in Norway.

As these changes are introduced, there may be lessons that will be of interest in England, where T Levels provide an alternative to apprenticeships in the same occupational area. Alongside this, earlier specialisation in the classroom-based foundation years in Norway are being introduced to improve links with the labour market.

Similar concerns about the relationship between classroom-based learning and work-based learning in Finland have led to a reorientation towards transferable competencies which can be achieved through classroom-based or apprenticeship provision or assessed as competence acquired through work to support transfer and progression.

3. Sustainability of the system

Concerns about difficulties in filling some apprenticeship vacancies and how well current programmes support developing skills needs have led to campaigns in Germany to promote TVET, along with an ongoing review of curriculum and competencies to ensure the sustainability of the system.

While all of the countries in this review continue to reinvent their TVET programmes to make them fitter for current labour requirements and to encourage take-up and completion, all (except Finland) continue to envisage a role for level 2 equivalent qualifications to meet the requirements of job roles at that level and to meet the needs of a significant proportion of young people who would find it more difficult to begin training immediately at level 3.

Transition support in preparation for level 3

No country in this review offers transition support in preparation for level 3 equivalent programmes as will be introduced in England. Students not deemed capable of immediately embarking on level 3 study or training (in most countries through their level of achievement at lower secondary) will be routed towards qualifications at lower levels. For the most part the level 2 equivalent routes are sizeable programmes viewed as conferring entry to employment in their own right, although progression routes do exist.

Level 3 programmes leading to occupational competence in all of the countries in this report are of longer duration than the two-year T Level programme, typically three years or more. The content of the first year of study in which all students participate in many countries (for example, vg1 in Norway or the Basic Programme in Denmark) may, therefore, offer lessons for the transition programme to T Levels in England.

Occupational competence

A further issue is the extent to which classroom-based TVET can lead to occupational competence. For T Levels, this issue has led to the concept of ‘threshold competence’, which acknowledges that there may remain a gap between the level of competence achievable through a classroom-based route compared with the work-based route, even where they are based on the same standards. The countries in this study have dealt with this issue in different ways.

In Germany, this has led to a clear delineation between occupations deemed suitable for classroom-based training and those for which an apprenticeship is the only route to the qualification. Norway and Denmark mandate a period of apprenticeship training following initial classroom-based study, while other countries have used modularised approaches that allow students to achieve credits towards qualifications while in school or college and to add additional credits once in work to achieve full qualifications.

Moreover, most of the countries in this study extend the period in which students can gain their full technical qualification well beyond upper secondary with opportunities to complete through additional credits gained while working or through opportunities to resume study after a gap.

Policy makers might wish to consider how the gap between threshold and full competence might be bridged (for example, through additional credits or a short period of formal apprenticeship) to ensure that those students with T Levels are not unduly disadvantaged in the labour market in comparison with those who followed the apprenticeship route. This could potentially be offered as a follow-on from upper secondary or after a gap which allows students to find work in their chosen specialism.

Insights into how other countries support progression in upper secondary level technical education


International progression report: good practice in technical education

PDF, 999KB, 106 pages


This report investigates other countries’ technical and vocational education for young people. It investigates how other countries support progression to more advanced levels.

This report was commissioned to inform the Department for Education’s review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below and in particular, to find out how England’s post-16 level 2 compared to that in other countries.

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