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Summary of the Royal Society’s responses to the Department for Education’s consultation on reforming post-16 qualifications in England

The Royal Society submitted responses to the Government’s two-part consultation on post-16 qualifications reform, which ran from October 2020 to 14 February 2021. The text below offers a summary of the Society’s responses.

General points

The Government’s approach to post-16 qualifications reform is rash. It is putting blind faith in T Levels, which it is determined will become the new ‘gold standard’ in vocational qualifications, equivalent in status to A levels, even though these qualifications are only just beginning to be rolled out and are completely unproven.

The Government should not jettison level 3 vocational qualifications it perceives as competitors to T Levels, notably Applied General Qualifications (particularly BTEC, which account for the majority of these qualifications). These qualifications are highly valued by students, Higher Education institutions and employers. Moreover, BTEC qualifications provide a valuable stepping-stone to further study for students whose average GCSE grades are often less than grade 5, many of whom come from disadvantaged backgrounds and communities that are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. These students would not usually satisfy the entry requirements for T Level courses, or necessarily be able to access the T Level transition course, with severe negative consequences for their educational progression and life chances.

The Society therefore believes the Government’s agenda is profoundly risky and could potentially damage the future career prospects of thousands of young people as well as the STEM pipeline, putting the Government’s economic ambitions at risk.

The Society believes that a more measured approach to reforming post-16 qualifications would better serve the needs of the population, providers, Higher Education institutions, employers and society. Gradually changing the qualifications market over a longer period would have several advantages, including:

  • providing opportunity for T Levels to mature;
  • providing employers and future students opportunity to recognise the benefits of T Levels; and
  • providing time to build up an evidence base on the effectiveness of T Levels in enabling students to progress and succeed.

The Society would also wish to see a flexible post-16 qualifications system that enables students to pursue academic and vocational qualifications, as recommended by the Sainsbury Review. The Government’s proposals are geared to creating a sharp division between the two, although its messaging around progression from T Levels to HE or employment is confusing.

Reform of the post-16 qualifications system should have, at its heart, qualifications that develop young people and adults’ mathematical competences and digital skills.

Academic qualifications

Core Maths

The Society welcomes the Government’s proposal to continue to fund Core Maths qualifications. There is a need, however, for the Government to put much more effort into promoting as well as funding Core Maths, including to senior leadership teams in schools and colleges, to students wishing to pursue technical qualifications at level 3 (including T Levels) and adults seeking employment or a change of career (see response to Question 16). The Government should, as it had originally indicated it would do, provide funding to enable students to be able to take Core Maths alongside their T Level in order to support the mathematical elements in the context of the T Level they are studying.

The Society believes that the Government should consider developing Core Maths type qualifications (under a different name) at level 2, which could potentially provide a suitable alternative to the recently reformed GCSE and Functional Skills Mathematics qualifications, which are failing many young people.

Other academic qualifications

The Society supports the Government’s proposals to continue to fund the Extended Project Qualification, Advanced Extension Awards in Mathematics, and the IB Diploma.

Digital skills

The Society disagrees with the Government’s proposal to simply remove funding from level 2 ICT FSQ and level 2 ICT User qualifications, unless these are replaced by more suitable, funded, level 2 digital skills qualifications. Since the Government has committed to replacing ICT qualifications with digital skills qualifications, it should develop a Digital Functional Skills qualification at level 2 that coheres with the entry and level 1 Digital Functional Skills qualifications – as well as the entry level and level 1 Essential Digital Skills Qualifications currently being developed. Creating a gap between level 1 and level 3 courses in digital skills would be illogical and could profoundly inhibit students’ development and progression in digital literacy and more broadly.

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