It’s all about choices

It’s all about choices

Paul Steer, Head of Policy at OCR, insists we must welcome the new proposals for careers advice which may not be perfect but have to be an improvement on where we are now and which include a commitment to providing advice to students about the new T Levels. 

It seems that choice is a theme that runs throughout the recently issued consultation on T Levels. Right at the start, it sets out a grand vision of a ‘simplified’ system where 16 year olds can make a choice between two high quality, rigorous Level 3 options – A Levels or T Levels.

These two routes, more broadly defined as technical and academic, are binary – there is no blending of the two and this makes the choices at 16 absolutely critical. We must therefore welcome the new proposals for careers advice which may not be perfect but have to be an improvement on where we are now. The proposals include a commitment to providing advice to students about the new T Levels. This can help inform young people of all the options available to them, but must not become a mechanism for promoting the uptake of T Levels simply to meet policy objectives.

Of course, not all 16 year olds will be ready or suited to either of these rigorous choices. With this in mind, the Department for Education (DfE) recognises that there will be a ‘small number’ of 16 year olds who will not achieve Level 3 outcomes by 18, so some Level 2 qualifications will still be required for them to choose from. It looks like, in the fullness of time, these will be developed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). Indeed, the consultation makes it very clear that, in the end, all existing technical qualifications at Level 2 or 3 will be swept aside to make way for new T Levels and other IfATE developed programmes. That means a lot fewer qualifications to choose from.

Whereas the DfE acknowledges that some young people will need Level 2 programmes at 16, its T Level consultation also recognises that some 16 year olds choosing the academic or technical routes will need a bit of time to prepare. These will be offered a ‘transition year’ to help them develop their basic skills and to come to a view as to which future choices best suit them. The consultation is very light on what a transition year might look like but it assures us that “Many providers already offer provision along these lines, and we would want to build on best practice”. Piloting will start in 2020.

Those who choose a T Level programme will be given a choice of 11 sectors or pathways. These routes are described within yet another consultation, this time about ‘occupational maps’. There has been unease from commentators about whether these sectors are quite right. They do not exactly mirror the way colleges traditionally divide themselves into different departments. And some things seem to be missing – notably Sport. Retail is absent, apparently on the basis that this is not a sufficiently technical area. Other traditional sectors, such as Health and Social Care seem to be dispersed across the new sectors. The maps themselves are part of wider work to be undertaken by IfATE, using its panels of employers, to design the content for both Apprenticeships and T Levels. These foundations need to be strong and robustly tested and the department must keep an open mind as to whether these 11 choices are quite right before it builds a whole system of choices predicated on them.

Within the 11 pathways there will be opportunities to specialise in the second year of study. However, it is interesting to contrast these 11 pathways with the range of choices open to someone opting for the academic route. There are 67 subjects to choose from (depending on how you count them) and, in theory, a student can choose 3 - 4 of these in any combination. Our A Level programmes are often described as narrow and specialist in comparison with the broader baccalaureate-style programmes offered in most other countries, but they clearly offer greater breadth than the highly specialist T Levels.

Furthermore, the academic route includes non-A Level provision, notably through what has been called Applied General Qualifications – these include OCR’s Cambridge Technicals and cover choices such as Sport, Health and Social Care, Business, and Digital Media. Applied General Qualifications continue to provide people with an opportunity to study a sector in depth and provide a successful and growing route into higher education. Students can choose to take them alongside A Levels or opt for larger versions, equivalent to three A Levels (like the T Levels), which can be taken as a whole programme.

Recent changes in performance tables mean that the assessment model for Applied Generals must now include a substantial externally examined component. Whereas this clearly works well for some students, we believe that this form of assessment can provide a barrier to achievement for a significant portion of talented young people. For this reason, we are committed to continuing to provide alternative vocational qualifications which do not feature such a high level of external assessment. It remains to be seen how long these will continue to be funded, but what is clear is that they are extremely popular, fulfil a need, and, as demonstrated in the recent report on Applied Generals, are valued by many universities as a well-trodden path to higher education. However, the T Level consultation suggests that government policy is to prefer qualifications, including T Levels, that have a high proportion of external assessment. In the future, other models of assessment may not be among the available choices.

We learn from the T Level consultation that even Applied General Qualifications, despite their high level of external assessment, are to be subject to review. This is despite the fact that they were reviewed recently and the Minister of State for School Standards, wrote to Ofqual earlier this year at the conclusion of this review stating: “It is my intention that AGQs should continue to provide pupils with a route to university, either in conjunction with A Levels or on their own”.

IfATE, and government policy in general is strongly wedded to the notion that T Levels must be employer-led – a mantra that is repeated over and over in the T Level consultation. Anyone with a policy memory will know that this has consistently been the policy back to the days of David Blunkett when he introduced the new employer-led Modern Apprenticeships. The occupational standards that underpinned NVQs were developed by sector bodies that were required to consult deeply and widely with employers. The content of 14-19 Diplomas were developed by Diploma Development Partnerships which were, again, largely employer-led. The trailblazer apprenticeships (the ones that have just experienced a drop in uptake of 59% and were described by Lord Sainsbury – inventor of the T Levels - as seeming to “overlap significantly with others, be firm- rather than occupation-specific, and/or contain insufficient technical content”) were developed by employer panels.

Finally, to emphasise the point that the thrust of the T Level consultation has very much been about limiting choice in favour of fewer, simpler options, we should look at the section that proposes a model of franchising each of the pathways to single exam boards. This means that, when it comes to T Levels, there will be only one choice of exam board per qualification. Such a model could provide an opportunity for government to procure services in line with tightly specified requirements and might drive down costs or increase levels of service, although no government’s track record for procuring services in this way is brilliant. The Department commissioned its own independent report on the proposed model which warned against the risks of creating an ossified system where it would be difficult to switch from one exam board to another at the end of a contract. The consultation itself acknowledges the risks that the model could create monopolies and put potential future competitors out of the game. The A Level model shows that competition can be effective and that the purported risk of a race to the bottom, in which exam boards compete to provide the ‘easiest’ exams, can be dealt with through strong regulation. There is a real risk that, if the franchise model goes ahead, it could create a system where there is no choice of exam board for schools and colleges, for learners and, ultimately, for the state – and that is what they call Hobson’s choice.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of OCR's Policy Briefing magazine, which you can download for free.

Paul Steer
Head of Policy, OCR

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