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Reforming post-16 technical and academic qualifications at level 3 and below

Morning, Wednesday, 30th June 2021

***Full-scale policy conference taking place online***

This conference is examining the future of post-16 technical and academic qualifications at level 3 and below.

It will be an opportunity to discuss next steps for post-16 qualifications, including looking at areas for reform as the DfE continues with its assessment of the future of qualifications at level 3 and below, and is taking place in the context of the Skills for Jobs white paper, and with the second wave of the T Level rollout due in September 2021.

Areas for discussion include:

  • balancing quality and choice in the qualification system
  • delivering for labour market needs
  • progression routes and providing clarity to students and employers

The discussion is bringing together stakeholders with key policy officials who are due to attend from the DfE; Ofsted; the IATE; the Cabinet Office; DWP; DIT; the Department for the Economy, NI; ESFA; the Government Legal Department; the Social Mobility Commission; the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales; and the Welsh Government - as well as parliamentary pass-holders from the House of Commons Library.

The agenda

  • Considerations for reviewing post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below
  • Ensuring alignment of the qualification system with needs on the ground
  • Achieving a proportionate qualification system - balancing high quality, choice and variety, and delivering for labour market and sector needs
  • Applied general qualifications - their role in the qualifications landscape, in providing access to HE, and in improving employment prospects
  • Priorities for the qualifications system and progression routes - clarity for students, access to HE, smooth transition to employment, and protecting learners with protected characteristics from disadvantage
  • The outlook for the qualification system and designing a coherent system

Key areas for discussion:

Ensuring a coherent and high quality level 3 qualification system - quality, choice and variety, and meeting demand on the ground:

  • quality and choice:
    • assessing the value and contribution of varying education pathways in meeting the needs of students
    • ensuring that all qualifications are of sufficient quality
    • evaluating the extent of overlap in content between different level 3 and 2 qualifications
  • sector and local needs - ensuring level 3 and 2 qualifications remain relevant and useful, with discussion expected on:
    • changing labour market needs, and ensuring qualifications complement the work done to tackle skills gaps
    • dovetailing with the aims of recent policy to meet employer needs, and understanding place-based variability in qualification take-up
  • timeframe and deliberation - the capacity and resources for the FE sector to put large-scale changes into effect in the wake of the pandemic:
    • following calls for caution from the sector in moving forward with the review, so as to take into account the disruption caused by COVID-19
    • factoring in sufficient time for evaluating any potential knock-on effects of defunding particular qualifications on the functioning of the system as a whole
    • ensuring T Levels are running smoothly enough to take on new students

Social mobility and widening access:

  • students with SEN or from ethnic minority backgrounds:
    • deepening understanding of qualifications taken by particular student groups, and factoring this into evaluations of the value of qualifications
    • ensuring the qualifications landscape does not disadvantage learners with protected characteristics
  • raising standards - exploring how qualifications can act as better job market currency for those students able to achieve a level 3 in the future landscape
  • achieving level 3 - supporting disadvantaged students to attain a level 3 qualification, including options such as:
    • tutoring
    • mentoring, as well as educational outreach and partnerships
    • factoring in the impact of the pandemic on educational attainment
  • access to HE - assessing the role of qualifications such as BTECs in supporting access to university, including when taken alongside A Levels, especially amongst underprivileged groups, and how the HE sector should respond to reform

Progression routes - providing clarity and quality assurance to students and employers:

  • student choice - providing clear choices on learning and career pathways, targeting support for disadvantaged students to enable them to make choices that work for them, and evaluating and improving the transition from level 2 to level 3
  • progression to employment - ensuring that level 3 qualifications are recognised and trusted by employers, as well as:
    • the impact of proposed cuts to the quantity of level 3 qualifications on the parity of esteem between academic and vocational study
    • the role of raising the profile of and awareness of T Levels in ensuring parity of esteem

A scan of relevant developments:

  • The DfE’s review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below - including a first and second stage, accompanied by a consultation, with the DfE currently considering its response, seeking to:
    • simplify the qualification system at level 3 and below:
      • to provide clearer choices and progression routes to young people and adults
      • with the system at level 3 and below currently containing over 12,000 qualifications
    • improve employers’ confidence in the quality of level 3 qualifications
    • designate ‘gold standard’ options - and re-assess the allocation of public funding for other level 3 qualifications
    • ensure clarity in purpose - target cohorts and progression routes for level 2 qualifications
  • Skills and Post-16 Education Bill - aiming to transform post-16 education and training, boost skills, and get more people into work, including by:
    • putting employers at the heart of the post-16 skills system through the Skills Accelerator
    • strengthening accountability by extending existing powers for the Secretary of State for Education to intervene where colleges have failed to meet the needs of students
  • research on the qualification system’s role in widening inclusion, including:
    • The impact assessment of post-16 qualifications reform - finding that students from ethnic minorities are likely to be negatively affected by proposed changes, due to their increased chance of taking qualifications that are expected to no longer be available in the future
    • BTECs: Why defunding qualifications would be a mistake - findings from HESA data indicating that a higher number of those entering HE by taking the BTEC qualification are from an ethnic minority or lower socioeconomic background than those entering by taking A Levels
  • The Skills for Jobs White Paper - setting out plans for reforming the post-16 education system, including measures such as:
    • the Lifetime Skills Guarantee - supporting adults to retrain and upskill at any age through, for example, enabling those without a level 3 qualification to complete one for free, choosing from almost 400 courses ranging from healthcare and engineering to accountancy
    • improved business-college collaboration - with businesses set to work with colleges in creating tailored plans for meeting local skills and training needs, as well as:
      • the establishment of College Business Centres through the Strategic Development Fund worth £65m
      • employers set to have a central role in designing nearly all technical courses by 2030
    • flexible learning - to enable people to access flexible student finance for retraining by 2025, and with funding allocated for testing ways to drive modular and flexible learning in 2021-22
    • teaching in FE - driving up quality by launching a nationwide recruitment campaign, as well as through the new Workforce Industry Exchange Programme
  • Introduction of T Levels - following the rollout of the first wave of the new qualification in September 2020, with T Levels currently available in construction, digital production, and education and childcare, and with the second wave due to launch in September 2021
  • Strategic Guidance to the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education - published by the DfE, setting out how the Institute can help rebuild the economy and drive down unemployment through helping to build a skills system that aims to support employers, employees and students, including:
    • clear progression paths for career-led learning
    • courses which develop concise, up-to-date, occupationally specific skills which are needed in order to rebuild the economy
    • improving the use of technical education to provide more reliable assessments and certifications that are valued by both learners and employers
  • The road not taken: Drivers of course selection - the Social Mobility Commission highlighting students’ choice of certain options for post-16 education as a driving force behind the gender pay gap

Policy officials attending:

Our forums are known for attracting strong interest from policymakers and stakeholders. Places have been reserved by parliamentary pass-holders from the House of Commons Library and officials from the Cabinet Office; the Department for Education; the Department for International Trade; the Department for the Economy, NI; the DWP; the Education and Skills Funding Agency; the Government Legal Department; the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education; the Office of the Secretary of State for Wales; Ofsted; Social Mobility Commission; and the Welsh Government.

Overall, we expect speakers and attendees to be a senior and informed group including Members of both Houses of Parliament, senior government officials from the DfE, Ofsted, Ofqual and other Government departments and agencies, schools and teaching professionals, education consultancies, university academics, alternative teaching providers, subject associations, exam boards, assessment providers, representatives of trade unions and local government, edtech providers, groups representing parents and students, specialist academics and charities, together with reporters from the national and trade media.

This is a full-scale conference taking place online***

  • full, four-hour programme including comfort breaks - you’ll also get a full recording and transcript to refer back to
  • information-rich discussion involving key policymakers and stakeholders
  • conference materials provided in advance, including speaker biographies
  • speakers presenting via webcam, accompanied by slides if they wish, using the Cisco WebEx professional online conference platform (easy for delegates - we’ll provide full details)
  • opportunities for live delegate questions and comments with all speakers
  • a recording of the addresses, all slides cleared by speakers, and further materials, is made available to all delegates afterwards as a permanent record of the proceedings
  • delegates are able to add their own written comments and articles following the conference, to be distributed to all attendees and more widely
  • too - there will be opportunities for delegates to e-meet and interact - we’ll tell you how!

Full information and guidance on how to take part will be sent to delegates before the conference

Keynote Speakers

Tom Bewick

CEO, Federation of Awarding Bodies

Robert Nitsch

Chief Operating Officer, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

Keynote Speakers

Ben Jordan

Senior Policy Unit Manager, UCAS

Tom Bewick

CEO, Federation of Awarding Bodies

Robert Nitsch

Chief Operating Officer, Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education

David Summers

Stakeholder Relationship Manager, OCR


Lord Young of Norwood Green

Officer, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Apprenticeships and former Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Skills and Apprenticeships (2008 – 2009)

Robbie Moore MP

Officer, All-Party Parliamentary Group on Social Integration


Mark Cameron

Chief Executive Officer, The 5% Club

Adrian Anderson

Chief Executive, University Vocational Awards Council

Dr Graeme Atherton

Director, National Education Opportunities Network and Head, AccessHE

Alun Francis

Principal and Chief Executive Officer, Oldham College

Catherine Sezen

Senior Policy Manager FE, Association of Colleges

Casey Russell

Communities and Partnerships Officer, Lifelong Learning Centre, University of Leeds

Daisy Hooper

Head of Policy and Public Affairs, Chartered Management Institute

Jane Paterson-Todd

Chief Executive Officer, Cambridge Ahead

Ruth Gilbert

Chief Executive, Career Colleges Trust

Siân Owen

Head of Stakeholder Engagement, Pearson Education