Government must pause post-16 education shake-up or risk making skills shortages worse
28 April 2023
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.
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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.
Image: Unsplash/Ben Mullins