Anne Milton: The Government must protect pupil choice when reforming qualifications

25 Feb

Anne Milton was Minister of State for Apprenticeships and Skills, and MP for Guildford from 2005 to 2019.

The Department for Education is currently reviewing the findings from its consultation on changes to qualifications at Level 3 (qualifications taken after GCSEs, e.g. A Levels or BTECs).

There are about 12,000 such qualifications, and the Government has already started to ‘tidy the landscape’ by defunding some of these. There has been widespread agreement that some of this was necessary. What is likely to be more controversial is the next tranche of defunding.

The stated aim of the qualifications consultation is to: simplify the system so that the choices for young people and adults are clearer; give a better line of sight from qualifications to employment, or more study; and create confidence by ensuring that every qualification is of high quality. In other words to raise standards at this level – no one can disagree with that.

However, there is a concern that in simplifying the system we will reduce opportunities for those that haven’t yet decided on their direction in life, or those that need qualifications as stepping stones on their way to finding the right job and career.

As the Minister for Skills and Apprenticeships between 2017 and 2019, I oversaw the development of the new T Levels. T Levels are the equivalent of an A level course in time and rigor, and will be a great option when fully rolled out, including their minimum of a 45-day industry placement. They are an important additional to technical education.

But the so-called ‘applied general’ qualifications (the most well-known of which are BTECs) are now in the firing line. I saw firsthand the role that these qualifications can play in boosting the skills of young people. We need to be very careful that in limiting choice at 16 to A Levels or T Levels, a generation of keen and diverse learners is not left out. If the Prime Minister’s aim is to ‘level up’, we must make sure that we have a wide variety of qualifications in place to be the stepping-stones into work or future study.

A recent survey from Pearson, who award BTECs and the new T Levels, found that eight-out-of-ten 14-18-year-olds and eight-out-of-ten parents feel that education should provide young people with a range of practical skills, alongside theory-based learning. BTECs do just that. They are widely accepted by universities and are often completed alongside a mix of other qualifications, including A Levels.

The creative sector in particular relies on the Performing Arts BTEC, as there is no A Level, or T Level equivalent being proposed. T Levels will be fantastic in areas of the country where there are plenty of industry placements available, but less good where those opportunities are limited. Similarly, they will work well for young learners who know what sector or industry they want to work in, but not so well for those who don’t know yet, or who might change their mind.

It is this issue of choice which is particularly dear to pupils. The Pearson survey highlighted most over nine-in-ten 14-18-year-olds want to study broad areas to prepare them for a number of job roles within an industry.

BTECs are flexible, comprehensive qualifications and so can be combined with several subjects. They develop broad knowledge and understanding and provide a route into a chosen career, without limiting future decisions. This improved choice, means students are more likely to know, by the time they finish school or university, what they want to do rather than be obliged to follow a path they set themselves two or three years earlier.

A wide range of organisations including Ofqual, the Association of Colleges, and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, have already cautioned against the Government pressing ahead too quickly with their review of qualifications, highlighting the risk of destabilising the system. Young people’s path does not always travel a straight line and many of the courses and qualifications taken will be of more value than others. But those courses and qualifications are vital in building confidence, acquiring skills, helping them develop as adults, and enabling them to start on their final route to work.

The impact assessment published by government with the qualifications review highlights that learners with special educational needs (SEN), those from Asian and black ethnic backgrounds, males, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are all more likely to be negatively affected by changes to the qualifications available in the future. Moreover, Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that a considerably greater proportion of those entering higher education who followed the BTEC route came from an ethnic minority background, or lower socio-economic groups, when compared with A Levels.

Add to this the research undertaken by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust, which suggests that the reforms will harm social mobility by reducing progression from University Technical Colleges to higher technical study and higher or degree apprenticeships by as much as 40 per cent, and the reforms paint a rather stark picture. There is a serious risk that the proposals would reverse recent laudable and successful efforts to widen diversity and broaden inclusion. Existing high-quality vocational qualifications, including BTECs, support a diverse range of learners, and the skills they bring to the UK economy.

I was proud to have been a minister during T level development, and policy officials, employers, and education providers worked tirelessly to get them off the ground within the time frame we set. There is no doubt that they are a much-needed addition, but they should not be the only option for the 16-year-old not wishing to take A levels. We need a choice between the early specialisation that T levels offer and broader, rigorous career-focused qualifications, such as BTECs.

Students, colleges, schools and the education sector are going through one of the most difficult periods in modern history. The education attainment gap was very apparent before Covid, and despite best efforts, the gap between the better off and less well-off students is likely to be growing rapidly. Now is not the time to cut off choices.

Simplify the system, make choices easier, and give clearer information about where qualifications will lead. Create confidence in the education system to ensure high quality. But don’t throw out qualifications that are widely accepted as being valuable to employers, to universities and to students, and which have provided millions of students wanting to succeed and find a passion with gainful employment.

Critically, make sure that there are stepping stones in place for those who haven’t yet made up their mind, want to deepen their interest in a subject and want to try out a variety of subjects when they are still young enough to do so. A binary choice between A Levels or T Levels would serve no one well.