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Skills qualifications confusion

27 December 2023

Education secretary Gillian Keegan, the sixth since 2019, with Rishi Sunak, meeting the education sector to discuss the new Advanced British Standard qualification in October 2023. Photo Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Constant changes to skills qualifications in recent years have added to the pressure on further education. One politician after another has interfered with no regard for the impact, creating nothing but confusion.

First was the announcement in 2021 by then education secretary Gavin Williamson that BTEC qualifications would effectively be scrapped in 2023. This was met with widespread condemnation across the further education and university sectors.

“Out of step”

Twelve organisations, including the main teaching unions, the Association of School and College Leaders and the Grammar School Heads Association, sent Williamson a joint letter on 29 July 2021 denouncing the move as “completely out of step with views expressed by our members”.

BTECs are currently being replaced by T Levels, an alternative to A levels, apprenticeships and other age 16 to 19 courses. These focus on vocational skills, aiming to help students into skilled employment, higher study or apprenticeships. Each T Level includes an in-depth industry placement that lasts at least 45 days.

The Department for Education plans to put £1.75 billion into the rollout of T Levels by the end of the 2024-25 financial year, with funding available for 100,000 starts by that point.

Low demand

But, only 16,400 students were recruited onto a T Level last year. Many colleges have missed their enrolment targets since T Levels launched in 2020. Several have scrapped some T Level courses due to low demand.

Ofqual, the exams and qualifications regulator for England, reported in August 2023 that up to 43 per cent of students had no understanding of the new qualification. And last summer a highly critical Ofsted review slammed promotion efforts after finding that a portion of T Level students who were recruited felt “misled”.

Yet another qualification

To confound the confusion, in October 2023 the prime minister Rishi Sunak announced plans to develop another new qualification for 16 to 18-year-olds, called the Advanced British Standard (ABS). He said this “will eventually replace A levels and T levels, bringing the best of both qualifications together into a single new qualification”!

But Sunak also said that it would take at least ten years to roll out the ABS and meanwhile full steam ahead with more T Level qualifications in September 2024.

The result is that a well-known qualification (BTEC) has been replaced by T Levels which are poorly understood. And they, along with the well understood A Level, will be phased out over ten years!