National Foundation for Educational Research Written evidence (EDU0050)


NFER is the leading independent provider of education research and insights in the UK. NFER welcomes the opportunity to submit written evidence to the House of Lords Education for 11–16 Year Olds Committee’s inquiry. This submission draws on up-to-date research evidence from NFER’s extensive research portfolio on the curriculum and skills. The focus of our response is on the effectiveness of the 11-16 curriculum in equipping young people with the skills they need to progress into post-16 education and employment in a future digital and green economy.

New technologies, coupled with major demographic and environmental change, are predicted to disrupt the economy and the labour market in the coming decades. They are forecast to have a huge impact on the role of workers in the labour market in the next 10 to 15 years and beyond, both in terms of the jobs they do and the skills they need. Moreover, Covid-19 has hastened the adoption of technologies and accelerated structural changes in the nature of work.  But the nature of the change in demand for jobs and skills in the future UK labour market is not currently well understood. We lack a detailed understanding both of future ‘skills demand’ – the skills which will be required in the labour market in the future – and of future ‘skills supply’ – the skills that can be expected to be available. Consequently, we do not have a clear picture of the skills gaps that are likely to exist in the future without action.  If left unaddressed, mismatches between skills supply and demand could have severe consequences, including: for individuals, who may lack the requisite skills to access satisfying and economically sustaining work; for employers, who may struggle to find workers with the skills they need; and for society which may experience widening inequalities.

The NFER Skills Imperative 2035[1] research programme aims to help identify policy and practice responses that might prevent these challenges from arising.  Clearly, there is a role for the education system in responding to this strategic challenge, as preparing young people for the world of work is one of the objectives of education.  This is essential for their future wellbeing, success and for economic growth.

There is therefore a need to better prepare individuals for entry into the labour market and provide the core transferable skills individuals need to unlock successful careers or upskill later in life[2].  Our literature review[3] highlighted that wider skills, such as creativity, critical thinking, teamwork, problem solving, and resilience, are expected to be critical for future employment and need to be prioritised. We refer to these as ‘essential employment skills’.  However, our review also revealed that technology is creating new, and enhancing existing, jobs rather than diminishing employment opportunities. There are human capabilities which AI and robotics are unlikely to be able to replicate in the coming decades, but education and training will be needed to allow most people to develop some work-related capabilities beyond these.

Employers (as well as young people, teachers, and employees) are recognising the need for a ‘new breed of digital and soft skills’, and are highlighting challenges in industry-specific, technical/operations, IT, and managerial skills[4]. Specialist digitally enabled professionals are expected to be one of the fastest growing roles.  It is essential that training at Level 1, 2 and 3 therefore is flexible enough to support all young people to progress into post-16 education and employment.

One of the key progression barriers is the requirement for level 2 in English and maths, and especially for disadvantaged young people (even though they may have the required technical skills to progress to technical and vocational education and training post-16). While 69 per cent of Key Stage 4 pupils achieved grade 4 or above in GCSE English and maths in 2021/22, less than half (48 per cent) of disadvantaged pupils achieved this level (see Key stage 4 performance data 2021/22).  The pass rates for resits is also concerning - for English, the proportion of male and female students achieving a grade 4 – equivalent to a C on the old system – is 28.4 per cent this year. That’s 13.9 percentage points lower than the 42.3 per cent rate in 2021 and 1.9 percentage points lower than 2019.  In maths, 20.1 per cent achieved a grade 4 for 2022 compared to 38.6 per cent in 2021 – an 18.5 percentage point fall – but just 1.1 percentage point down on 2019[5].  Consideration of the suitability of GCSEs for all and potential alternative pre-16 functional qualifications, which provide essential numeracy and literacy skills, is needed to address this continued barrier for young people to progress to post-16 education and training.  Moreover, it is needed to address inequality of opportunity for this third of the pre-16 cohort to develop the essential basic skills needed to succeed in the future labour market.

We are also concerned that the recent reforms to Level 2 and 3 qualifications will result in the loss of well-proven, distinctive, and respected Applied Generals used by many young people, employers, and higher education. This loss has serious implications for young people’s wellbeing connected to precarious employment and the scarring effects of unemployment; a slowing of improvements in social mobility and attempts to reduce regional disparities; the loss of a reliable talent pipeline leading to skills shortages that will impact on productivity and the rebuilding of the post-pandemic economy; and risks to developing a high-wage, high-skilled economy.

Eradicating these qualifications creates a substantial gap in relevant education opportunities, reducing the adequacy of future education provision for level 1, 2 and 3 learners, alongside increasing concerns regarding the continued significant decline in the numbers of intermediate level apprenticeships (from 291,330 starts in 2015/16 to 91,520 in 2021/22)[6].

This will significantly narrow their education options and severely reduce their skills development and employment prospects resulting in some entering insecure, poorly paid occupations and/or becoming NEET. Moreover, this impact may also be felt by those young people who have caring responsibilities or must combine study and part-time work to support themselves and their families who will risk being shut out of level 2 and in turn level 3 qualifications.

Every effort should be made to ensure that in-scope qualifications engage young people who would have taken out-of-scope/defunded qualifications.

However, the latest Labour Market statistics worryingly show further increases in the number of young people who are not in full time education nor in employment – which is now above one million. Nearly 15% of all young people are neither in employment nor full-time learning (14.8%), the highest rate since autumn 2020[7].

NFER recommends that the following need serious consideration and attention to ensure that the education system supports the journeys and outcomes of young people through education and training and into employment.

1.       Evaluation of the extent to which the current pre-16 curricula supports the development of essential employment skills, as well as core transferrable skills such as numeracy, literacy and digital skills.  Our Skills Imperative 2035 will be exploring this together with making international comparisons.

2.       Consideration of the benefits of developing assessments of essential employment and core skills as well as academic attainment.

3.       A review of the requirement for all young people to complete GCSE English and maths and consider the possible introduction of alternative pre-16 functional qualification courses to GCSE in numeracy and literacy – to support those learners considered most at risk of not achieving grade 4 at GCSE.

4.       A review of the decision to remove funding from the range of Level 2 qualifications (especially Applied Generals) until the impacts on the educational journeys and employment outcomes of young people, especially disadvantaged young people, is properly understood.

28 April 2023




[2] - p22). 

[3] Ibid 1

[4] The Skills Imperative 2035: what does the literature tell us about essential skills most needed for work?


[6] DfE Apprenticeship data

[7] IES Briefing Labour Market Statistics April 2023.