The future of post-16 qualifications – Report Summary

This is a House of Commons Committee report, with recommendations to government. The Government has two months to respond.

Author: Education Committee

Related inquiry: The future of post-16 qualifications

Date Published: 28 April 2023

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Summary

Early experiences of T Levels

1. The Government has introduced significant and ambitious post-16 education reforms, aimed at streamlining and improving qualifications at level 3 and below. At the centrepiece of its reforms is the new T Level qualification, which creates a prestigious technical route for post-16 learners to study towards an occupational specialism and acquire the skills needed by employers and the economy.

2. T Levels are, rightly, rigorous and challenging qualifications. However, we do not believe there is yet the right balance between rigour and accessibility. Early evidence indicates that colleges and schools are setting high entry requirements for T Levels, and around one-fifth of the first T Level cohort are estimated to have dropped out. We heard that T Levels are likely to be less accessible, and less manageable for some groups, including lower attaining students, and students with special educational needs and disabilities. As a result, this qualification could be restricted to a small pool of academically gifted students, who have a specific employment goal in mind by age 16. This is a concern, particularly for a programme that has attracted over £1 billion in public funding. We heard that some universities are requiring an A level alongside a T Level for entry onto certain courses, but there is a lack of consistency in Department guidance as to whether a T Level could be feasibly studied alongside an A level.

3. The T Level Transition Programme is intended to offer a high-quality preparatory route for students who require this additional year of support and preparation. However, Transition Programme progression rates are exceptionally low, with only 14% of the first cohort successfully moving to a T Level, and just under half (49%) progressing to a level 3 qualification.

4. The success of the wider T Level rollout will rest on the availability of high-quality placements, as every student must complete an industry placement that lasts a minimum of 315 hours (approximately 45 days). We heard that up to 250,000 placements could be needed once T Levels are fully rolled out. Although T Levels were developed with the input of 250 leading employers, 2021 Department research found that almost two-thirds (63%) of employers were not interested in offering a T Level placement, and employer interest in providing placements appears to have declined. 30% of employers expressed interest in providing a placement in 2021, compared to 36% in 2019.

5. Regional disparities in economic activity present an obstacle to equitable access to placements. T Levels were described to us as a “city-centric initiative”, and as “the urban qualification”. There is a risk that young people living in or near urban areas, with access to a range of different sectors and industries, will be the main beneficiaries of T Levels, while those from rural, coastal and disadvantaged areas will have fewer placement opportunities.

The future of Applied General Qualifications

6. A further key strand of the Department’s reforms is to consolidate and streamline post-16 qualifications. As a result of these reforms, it is likely that a substantial number of Applied General Qualifications (AGQs), including those deemed by the Department to ‘overlap’ with T levels, will no longer be funded. Instead, T Levels are intended to become one of the main programmes of choice for students at post-16, alongside A levels and apprenticeships. AGQs, which combine practical skills with academic learning, allow students to develop skills and knowledge in a vocational area. These important qualifications are taken by substantial numbers of learners, and serve a distinct and different purpose to T Levels. In 2021, 132,635 students aged 16–18 were taking an AGQ, and a further 141,196 were taking an AGQ alongside an A or AS level.

7. Given the concerns we have heard about accessibility, potential T Level placement shortfall, and unequal regional access to placements, post-16 students may be at risk of having neither a T Level option, nor an AGQ option in future. The ability of businesses to offer sufficient, high-quality industry placements, and a clear track record of T Level success, should be prerequisites to scrapping AGQs. There are also concerns that T Levels will not fully replace the withdrawn AGQ offer, which may result in skills gaps in certain key industries. For example, a January 2023 letter from a cross-party group of Peers to the Secretary of State for Education, warned that “it is difficult to think of a worse time to scrap the Extended Diploma in Health and Social Care”.

8. While we welcome the Department’s ambition to simplify and improve the post-16 landscape, the speed and scope of the Department’s reforms risk constricting student choice, and narrowing opportunities for young people to progress. Although we heard much praise for T Levels, and strong sector will for them to succeed, the vast majority of written and oral evidence provided to this inquiry expressed concern about the impacts of withdrawing funding for AGQs. Indeed, it is rare for an inquiry to receive such a significant degree of consensus on a particular issue. We note that 86% of those responding to the Department’s consultation disagreed with its proposal to remove funding for qualifications that overlap with T Levels. A concern for further education colleges and sixth forms whose funding has been particularly squeezed in recent years with larger cuts than other areas of education after 2010. The Government should conduct a review of the sufficiency of further education funding.

9. The Department’s timeline for removing funding from AGQs does not allow sufficient time for the evaluation of T Levels. As a result, the Department is basing major reforms on untried and untested qualifications which are not yet established, and for which there is as yet no robust evidence. There is currently no data showing that T Levels are accessible, scalable nationally, and are more effective than the qualifications they replace at promoting social mobility. The Department must place a moratorium on defunding AGQs. Tried and tested AGQs should only be withdrawn as and when there is a robust evidence base proving that T Levels are demonstrably more effective in preparing students for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility.

Apprenticeships

10. As part of our inquiry, we took evidence on post-16 apprenticeships. Whilst there has been some welcome growth in higher level apprenticeships, there has been a long-term decline in apprenticeship starts among 16–18 year olds and at level 2. The number of apprenticeship starts among under-19s has declined by 41% between 2015/16 and 2021/22. The number of starts on intermediate (level 2, GCSE equivalent) apprenticeships, has fallen by 69% in the same period. All too often it is older, more highly qualified workers who are prioritised for apprenticeships at the expense of young people trying to get their foot on the first rung of the career ladder. The Department must set out how it will address the long-term decline in apprenticeship starts among young people, and ensure apprenticeships are the gold-standard ‘earn and learn’ option for school and college leavers.

Maths to 18

11. In January 2023, the Government set out plans to make studying a maths qualification compulsory up to age 18. There is a strong case for improving young people’s mathematical and problem-solving skills. England is an international outlier in not requiring the study of maths up to 18. There is rising demand from employers for mathematical and quantitative skills at all levels of the labour market, but consistent undersupply of these skills. Jobs are likely to become ever more data-driven, meaning that those with poor mathematical skills are at risk of being left behind. A level maths will evidently not be appropriate for all students, but all young people should be leaving compulsory education equipped with a portfolio of numeracy, data analysis, financial literacy and statistical reasoning skills that they need for the modern world.

12. There are a number of challenges to be addressed prior to the delivery of these reforms. These include tackling recruitment and retention of specialist maths teachers, and building a stronger foundation of numeracy and mathematical skills and knowledge at GCSE and below. Addressing these issues is a pre-requisite to ensuring the success of compulsory study of maths up to 18, and the Department must work with the sector to clearly set out how it will do so.

International Baccalaureate Careers Programme

13. We also considered the merits of a baccalaureate model at post-16 as part of our inquiry, taking evidence on the benefits of the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme, which offers both depth and breadth. We noted that the International Baccalaureate Careers Programme (IBCP) is a broad, flexible post-16 qualification that enables students to acquire a valuable blend of academic, vocational and employability skills. A destinations survey for the 2019 IBCP cohort showed that 56% of students had progressed to higher education, 19% to employment and 11% to an apprenticeship. We heard that the IBCP has been particularly successful in Kent, where it has been adopted by 24 schools to support local aspirations of economic regeneration and employability. Despite these successes, the Department does not plan to continue funding the IBCP. The Department must revisit its decision to withdraw funding for the IBCP. It should continue to fund this rigorous and accessible qualification, or provide evidence that any replacement will generate improved outcomes.