T-level confusion at the Department for Education: what is the end game?

This week brought a further announcement from the Department for Education that more BTECs were to be unfunded. It marks the continuation of a policy to replace all Applied General Qualifications or AGQs that overlap with the new T-levels. In practice, this means all of them including BTECs. Yet the announcement that the replacement of T-levels and A-levels with a new ‘Advanced British Standard’ (ABS) means that the policies appear to be in total disarray. The big question being asked is, what is their end game?

The announcement to scrap A-levels and T-levels in favour of a  combined  ‘Advanced British Standard’ was made at the Conservative Party Conference earlier this month. But it backfired immediately, simply because it represented an admission of failure of government policies over thirteen years to date. The policy paper,  ‘A world class system: the advanced British Standard’ is very thin on detail at 47 pages. Its evidence basis is very shaky too.  

The idea’s origins go back a long way but its current incarnation emanates from the Times Education Commission, who published their findings in June of last year after a year of deliberations by over 600 experts. The main recommendation was the introduction of a,

 “British Baccalaureate, an equally rigorous but broader qualification than A-levels including both academic and vocational routes or a combination of the two”.

By October of 2022 Rishi Sunak had pledged the introduction of a ‘British Baccalaureate’ among other policy reforms that includes new technical institutions focusing on apprenticeships and T-levels.

The idea of a broader educational offering between 16 and 19 was followed by endorsement of its introduction by a report of an inquiry by the education committee in April of this year in, ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’.  It was observed that,

“Whereas many other countries insist on students covering a broad and balanced curriculum up to age 18, England is an international outlier in the narrowness of its upper secondary education. The average number of A levels taken by a student is just 2.67, and T Levels, the new technical qualification, offer an even more narrow and specialised route.”

They considered serious proposals in answer to the question of “A baccalaureate model at post-16?”.  But they also warned of “reform fatigue” sweeping across hard pressed colleges and their staff wary of so much fast change.

A clear way forward.

Retaining BTECs alongside A-levels offers a flexible platform from which to launch the ABS curriculum. This is so obvious; it is embarrassing to have to say it. The ‘all or nothing’ singular T-level will not offer any flexibility as the ABS is launched, and a reversion to something closer to BTECs will be needed before then. This immediately negates the need for T-levels unless another ‘end game’ is in play.

Sailing against the wind.

In the meantime, the government is heading the other way and pressing on with the planned demise of many ACQs, including the popular BTECs. This was finalised last week with an update of the those to be defunded that overlap with T-levels in ‘Wave 3 T Levels: overlapping qualifications’.

“The final list of qualifications that overlap with wave 3 T Levels and will have 16 to 19 funding withdrawn for new starts from 1 August 2025”.

In doing so, the government is sowing the seeds of considerable uncertainty for students, schools, and colleges. It is also creating a mess to be resolved later when the ABS is introduced.

Sowing the seeds of uncertainty.

While the demise of T-levels and A-levels now seems certain, the timing is very uncertain. The new ABS will take at least eight years to come into play as the government “sets out long-term reforms to our education system that will not be achieved overnight”. A white paper is only planned to be released next year and could take another fifteen months to emerge. This would be likely to overlap with a new government and unlikely to impinge upon an election campaign.

While the broadening of the curriculum beyond age sixteen is welcome, alongside plans to “look again at the type and format of GCSE examinations”, it seems this will be too late for those about to be trammelled onto a single-track T-level and into employment. They will become a lost generation.

Admission of failure.

The ABS move is nothing short of an admission of failure by the current government. The T-levels were designed to be an all or nothing choice for students at sixteen that diverted them from higher education and A-levels. A House of Commons Library report in November 2021 concluded that,

“The Government will create two pathways for post-16 progressionAn 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)”. 

While they remain in place for several more years, a generation will feel they were duped and badly let down. Its fair to say that T-levels will become a choice of last resort and will not be popular. This may be simply because they will not last for very long. A future job interviewer might ask a candidate, what a T-level is or worse,

“I see you have only one T-level. Why is that? What went wrong?”

Get out of that one if others have multiple BTECs and A-levels combined. There is a long way to go to sell the idea of a single T-level on a future CV.

The ‘official’ government position and mixed ministerial messaging.

In the midst of the confusion, the current Minister of State for Skills, Apprenticeships and Higher Education, Robert Halfon, has been taking up very confusing and contradictory positions. This has become far too alarming to be ignored.

He has previously advocated the abolition of GCSEs, and in 2019 came up with some radical proposals reported by the BBC in, ‘Pointless’ GCSEs should be scrapped, says senior MP’.

“Get rid of GCSEs, which seem to me pointless. Instead, there should be some kind of assessment to show how far you’re progressing,”

He proposed widening of the curriculum to age eighteen and a baccalaureate-like qualification to replace A-levels. This would combine arts, sciences and vocational subjects and the only exams would be at age eighteen (TEFS 22nd October 2022 ‘Attainment gaps and questioning the purpose of examinations’)

Appointed as a minister last year he had already fallen in behind T-levels as he did a handbrake turn.  Earlier this summer, at the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) summer symposium at Exeter University, he caused more confusion about his position. Asked about ‘The future of post-16 qualifications’ report from the Education Committee he bluntly said, “I do not agree with any of it”. When asked about the defunding of so many BTECs, he stressed that, “BTECs are not being scrapped” and seemed to misunderstand the question (See TEFS 14th July 2023 ‘Wake up and smell the coffee: Shining NEON light on’).

Cross party consensus is needed urgently.

A more stable plan is needed now more than ever. The technical and economic challenges faced by the UK are immense and will not be altered by political posturing. The Labour Party has thrown in its lot behind the Protect Student Choice campaign along with many prominent backers. They are calling for a pause in the defunding of BTECs and a review of their future merit. This is now needed more urgently as the move to the ABS proceeds. This would be better achieved with more agreement across the political spectrum. The government might fall in behind this as it plans for the new ABS and hold out hope for those affected. Pressing on with such a divisive T-level plan will have long term impacts well beyond what they intended; particularly if a new government reverses what is happening at the last minute.

Reality can be harsh.

Setting aside the uncertainty surrounding the ABS, T-levels have been at the core of government education policy and thinking for some time. But the main issue identified by many observers is that T-levels will replace most, perhaps all, more flexible existing qualifications, known as Applied General Qualifications or AGQs, that overlap with them. This means fewer choices and much less flexibility for candidates. Importantly, T-levels are stand alone and are an ‘all or nothing’ alternative to A-levels from age sixteen. In contrast, BTECs are designed so they can be studied alongside some A-levels. This means many universities are more comfortable about accepting them and they offer a considerable degree of flexibility before career choices are made later. T-levels are simply not flexible in this way and to some extent are a leap into the unknown for colleges and the students.  They seem to be designed to deter students from university. The next few years will be telling for those caught in a T-level trap.

The ‘end game’.

It would help if schools, colleges, and higher education institutions had some idea of what was the final ‘end game’. Unfortunately, it is hard to concentrate on the course and horizon when the government ship appears to be lurching around so much. TEFS has been harsh in the past in suggesting that the aim is to deter students from university and continue to favour those from better off backgrounds. If this is the aim, then it seems to be working. T-levels will further advance this aim as they are rolled out.

A simple answer may reside in demographic data and population projections.

Writing for the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) in 2020, Rachel Hewitt set out the demographic changes already in play in ‘Demand for Higher Education to 2035’. This followed an earlier report in 2018 that reached similar conclusions to 2030. It is inevitable that the 18-year-old population will rise to a peak around 2030 before dropping back. Indeed, the latest and more detailed, ‘National Pupil Projections’, out last week from the government, shows a similar trend up to 2028.

With the student loan commitments expanding into the future, and demand likely to rise, could the current strategy be a ‘cunning plan’ to cut costs through a lower demand for places in the next few years? A cynic might think so. But it appears this is a logical conclusion. Constraining students in a narrow T-level, and delaying the ABS for at least eight years, is very convenient. It is indeed cynical if it is being done at the expense of dousing the aspirations of so many students trapped in these times through no fault of their own.

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

Leave a Reply