Post-16 qualifications taken with a pinch of salt

The Education Committee’s review of ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’ was released recently. It is comprehensive and it is taking time for the implications to sink in. It is highly critical of the government in promoting T-levels as an exclusive alternative to A-levels. This comes of little surprise and gathers in the disquiet surrounding what TEFS has called divisive ‘social engineering’.

The government has until 28th of June 2023 to respond to criticism of a policy already in full swing. They may well take the review, and its clear evidence, with a ‘pinch of salt’ and carry on regardless.

Just over a year ago the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill completed its passage through Parliament, with royal ascent on 28th April 2022.

The underlying aim was, “making sure all pupils meet providers of technical education so that they understand the wide range of career routes and training available to them, such as apprenticeships, T Levels or traineeships, not just the traditional academic options”.   On the surface it seemed sensible in its urgency to plug a widening skills gap.  But it must surely be acknowledged that twelve years of a Conservative government had generated the shortfall in the first place. That is hardly a legacy worthy of celebration.

A turning point.

The bill was a turning point in education and the prospects of students and originated under a very different regime from the Department for Education (DfE) and Secretary of State, Nadhim Zahawi.  But he did not last long as he detoured via chancellor, chair of the conservatives, and ‘no portfolio’ to the exit door tripping up on tax man on the way out.  His replacement in the DfE was comprehensive school and post 92 university educated, Gillian Keegan.  She inherited an ongoing review of ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’ initiated as far back as November 2021. The calls for evidence were closed in January 2022 so a report was long overdue.

With the government ploughing on with their reforms, the doubts were  already setting in.  TEFS had consolidated its position on the T-level takeover from BTECs that summer with ‘(‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’).  However, it took until 19th of April 2023 for the full consideration of worries to emerge with the report, ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’ released.

The conclusions were inevitable and raised many concerns. 

Social Engineering.

The idea of creating a system that essentially deters able students from university was bound to impact students from less advantaged backgrounds and it was easy for some to conclude this was the final aim.

A House of Commons Library report in November 2021 had already observed that, “The Government will create two pathways for post-16 progression. An academic route centred on A Levels is intended to lead to further study. A technical route will mean T Levels become the main qualification option for young people wanting to enter skilled employment (requiring specialist training or expertise)”. 

This approach was clearly aimed at diverging post-16 education in England into two distinct pathways. The technical route would exclude mixing with other qualifications and immediately block many students from more flexible options.  The review asks that the government seeks to consider this impact more.

Excluding other qualifications.

The idea of using T-levels as a means to an end in generating a more skilled workforce is not discounted. Along with employer involvement and apprenticeships, it appears of be a good idea. But asking students to decide on an academic career or a technical career at age sixteen beggars belief. It’s a throwback to an outdated attitude of us, the advantaged, and the rest.  The technically educated are there to serve the academic elite as ‘educated plumbers’.

Back in November 2021, TEFS warned that ‘Post-16 education is becoming a ‘dog’s breakfast’. Outside of A-levels, the other qualifications are lumped together as the ‘Applied General Qualifications’ (AGQs).  Many, such as BTECs, combine academic work with technical study and proved to be flexible in keeping options open. But it is these that are being defunded to be replaced by exclusive T-levels. Thus, removing finding for BTECs, and other qualifications for some courses, such as City and Guilds and the International Baccalaureate Careers Programme, doesn’t bear up to scrutiny. It immediately cuts off a route to university used by many students in the past. It was no surprise that the review found that universities were reluctant to accept T-levels as a qualification. Some even hoped for a mixture of T-levels and A-levels that would be impossible to achieve.

Hitting the least advantaged.

With the other qualifications coming under pressure, it is important to determine which students are most affected. Therein lies the main concern and the government knows full well what the impact will be. This is because in July 2022 its own impact assessment in ‘Review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England’ set out the consequences. It starkly observed that “students from disadvantaged backgrounds could also be particularly affected. This is because students from these backgrounds are disproportionately highly represented on qualifications likely to no longer be available in future.” 

The current review endorses this with,

“There was widespread agreement of the important role that AGQs play in promoting social mobility by widening access to, and participation in, higher education and skilled employment.153 40% of university entrants from the least privileged quintile entered university with BTECs compared with under a tenth from the most privileged quintile.154 44% of white working-class students that enter university studied at least one BTEC and 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications.”

There can be no doubt what the result will be. Also, no doubt that the government will continue with its policy of social division.

Nothing new.

It seems we have been here before. There was a glaring skills gap after the end of World War II.  Yet, just as today, it took nearly ten years for the emerging crisis to be fully recognised. The White Paper on Technical Education of 1956 described the sorry state of technical education. There was an urgent need to increase the supply of trained ‘manpower’ at all levels of technological expertise. The same might be said now. The policies of the last ten years or so seem to have recreated a similar problem as technical colleges lost funding and universities expanded in a highly unregulated way.

With the Robbins Committee on Higher Education Report, in the intervening period, it took a new government in 1964 to make the massive changes needed.  Yet there seems to be a consensus across the political divide that recognised the urgency of expanding tertiary education.

The outgoing government of 1964 pushed through the establishment of ‘Industrial Training Boards’ set up through the ‘Industrial Training Act’ of 1964 before the election that year. In relation to local colleges, it was clear that “Their invaluable contribution to the educational and economic needs of the nation must in no way be prejudiced by the development of higher education. The Government will continue to give them all possible support.”

However, this was not to succeed. Just as today, the expected contribution from employers dissipated. It was simply the case that the heavy burden placed upon industry in making the Industrial Training Boards work was unlikely to be enough. The inevitable result was the founding of the Polytechnics that mostly emerged from the Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) (The Cabinet Papers | Colleges and polytechnics.  By May of 1966, the white paper ‘Higher Education within the Further Education System’ emerged and real change happened.

Could it be that an incoming Labour administration will be needed to make similar radical changes and inject more pace and purpose into proceedings?

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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