Vocational qualifications in the sixth form: uncertainty, confusion or a brand new future?

Towards the end of every January, heads of sixth forms in schools and colleges up and down the country steel themselves for the annual publication of the 16-19 performance tables. Mostly their eyes are drawn to two headline figures - their level 3 VA scores in A levels and Applied Generals. However, this year many schools and colleges would have had nothing to view in the applied space. Because they stuck to the old specification (aka the legacy qualifications), their results were not published. The actual numbers of student entries with final results went down from 124,000 in 2017 to 46,000 in 2018 (technical level falls were equally dramatic from 64,000 to 13,000). The main reason for not adopting the new spec was simple. They are “harder”, mainly because of the external examined assessment typically worth 40%; the “Govian academisation of BTEC”, according to one commentator, was taking effect.

But this pattern won’t last. Many more students have now taken the plunge on the new Regulated Qualifications Framework (RQF), with their first results coming in the summer of 2019. When the definitive decision is taken over discontinuing the funding of the old spec, then the rest of the students will probably move over (at the moment, it seems that September 2019 starters will be the last cohort of legacy students to receive a full two years’ funding). So where does that leave our less academic learners?

T levels are coming

The answer may lie with T levels, the new flagship technical qualification for level 3 16 to19 year-olds. First teaching starts in September 2020 in digital, construction and education and childcare - in around 50 schools and colleges up and down the land. The juggernaut gathers pace after that with eight more T levels in 2021, and then the planned full rollout in all technical areas. Then the £500 million-pound question arises (£500 million being the new additional funding): what happens now to the new Applied Generals?

This is officially going to be decided as a result of the post-16 curriculum review, due out later this year in two stages. One would imagine the sector’s response will be vociferous, along the lines of “hands off BTECs (and hands off the other brands of course)”. If T levels can do what they promise on the tin though, ie be of higher quality than existing vocational qualifications, offer a three-month employer-led work placement, offer rigorous technical specialism training informed by employer panels, and then offer progression to technical employment or HE, then perhaps the response may be more muted.

Life chances at stake

But the known unknowns loom large at this stage. What if no employer steps forward to offer the 45 days’ work placement (rules indicate that no 45-day placement means no overall pass)? What about in the parts of the country where there are no relevant local employers, or where students don’t want to study for these considerably larger programmes because of part-time jobs or family carer commitments? And with level 2 English and maths being a mandatory exit requirement for passing a T level, what about those students who just can’t pass their GCSE maths or English resits or functional skills equivalent? (and let’s be honest, the national pass rates for resits do not make pretty reading).

Indeed, other obstacles are easy to identify as well, but perhaps we shouldn’t be taking a glass-half-empty perspective to T levels at all. T levels offer real new money, potential new capital funding, real buy-in from employers, and teaching hours that compete with the higher-performing countries around the world. The vocational landscape will change, and it may be that January results tables may be the least of our worries – we are juggling with a generation of young peoples’ life chances here.

The government needs to know that they can’t get this wrong. Somewhere out there are many thousands of young people in their mid-twenties who have a 14-19 diploma on their CV to which employers say, “what’s that then?”. The government say they have learned the lessons of that era and we all have a duty to try and make T levels work, but the government also has a duty to listen to us in the sector as well. The next generation of young people in our schools and colleges only get one chance – we’ve got to get this right.

Kevin Gilmartin
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist
Posted: 19/02/2019 11:10:48