What About Everybody Else? – My response to post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below in England

choices maze

With new T-Levels on the way, Youth Ambassador Board Member Harvey Morton responds with the view that reducing young people’s study options without youth consultation may not be the best approach to tackle a complex education landscape.

When you’re moving through school into college, sixth form and apprenticeships, it becomes apparent quite quickly that the options seen as most ‘academic’ are usually the ones that are pushed – because, let’s face it, it’s all about those statistics and league tables.

For me, when I entered my GCSE years, teachers were always harping on about going to Sixth Form, and, how A-Levels were the most logical next step if you wanted to forge a successful career and go on to university. In hindsight, A-levels were not a suitable choice for me. I really struggled, despite getting GCSE grades all A*-C. However, I chose to go to Sixth Form because it was the option I knew most about. Anything else that wasn’t A-levels got quietly pushed aside and overlooked by my school. It probably didn’t help that they were trying to boost figures for their own sixth form provision.

My A-Level teachers got me through sixth form. If it weren’t for them, I’d have quit without hesitation. I did reasonably well at A-Level and got into Sheffield Hallam University to study Business and Enterprise Management which I was thrilled about; however, I quickly realised that very few people on my course had been to sixth form to earn their place. Many had come from BTEC backgrounds, and, to further rub salt into my sixth form wounds, they were entitled to high achievers bursaries for getting the equivalent of all A and B grades at A-Level/College before coming to university. This didn’t feel fair, because these grades just weren’t achievable at A-Level, but in BTEC, it’s slightly different – you have more chances to prove yourself.

I’ve always been a practical learner. Sixth form didn’t prepare me for university. If I’d taken the BTEC route, I would have had a much easier start.

I’ve always been a practical learner, but I only realised this after spending a few years at university. At GCSEs and sixth form, you’re only really allowed to learn from the textbook. The truth is, my experience at sixth form didn’t prepare me for university. I’d never had to juggle various coursework deadlines and carry out practical assignments previously, and I spent my first year at university muddling through and barely keeping my head above the water. Of course, if I’d taken the BTEC route, I would have had a much easier start at university.

I’ve realised it’s not just me that found myself in this situation. It is, in fact, the case for most students leaving school at GCSE level and sixth formers looking to move on to the next stages of their career too. So why is this happening?

Is the best solution to a complex education landscape really to significantly reduce options for young people? I don’t think so.

Well, the Department for Education (DfE) recently carried out a review into post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below in England, and they feel the current landscape is complex, with over 12,1000 qualifications available for students aged 16-19 and adults too. They also argued that 42% of these qualifications had no funded enrolments in 2015-17 and 2016-17, but does that mean the options available to young people should be significantly reduced? I don’t think so.

The Department for Education argues that by simplifying the qualifications landscape, all qualifications which are available to young people will have clear links to further study and employment. They propose that by implementing T Levels from September 2020, students will gain high-quality technical alternatives to A Levels, combining classroom theory, practical learning and an industry placement – of at least 315 hours, or approximately 45 days – where students will build the knowledge and skills they need in a workplace environment.

The reality is that this proposed ‘one size fits all’ approach won’t work.

We’d have T-Levels and A-Levels, but what about all the young people and adults who don’t want to take this route? And what about those who don’t have the qualifications and experience even to have the privilege of this choice?

DfE says that their review into post-16 qualifications will ensure that all disadvantaged students and those with special needs will experience positive effects from these new qualifications, but is this really a promise they can make? Many post-16 options and those options available below level 3 are already inaccessible to disadvantaged students because institutions are understaffed and underfunded, so, why do DfE suddenly think that the introduction of new options for young people will swiftly combat this issue? It’s okay to carry out a review, but with a bold statement made like this, how can DfE assure that their new options fulfil the needs of all young people? I feel the introduction of T-levels would have quite the opposite effect.

Employers are already stretched, and the purpose of introducing T-levels is supposed to be to refine the current offering and ensure good progression for young people, but how are placements going to be available for those in rural areas and weak public transport links, which would make getting to the placement very expensive for any young person for a start? I’m all for creating new qualifications and ensuring a high-quality is met across all provisions; however, it would be a challenge for the government to provide a high standard of teaching when the rollout of these new T-levels is going to be so large. T-levels are only going to be successful if they are accessible and seen as a credible vocational route.

Currently, employers have little understanding of all the qualifications which young people are coming to them with. That’s understandable, because there are so many. However, will employers really be willing to offer the massive commitment of work placement hours necessary? And how much of this will be quality training?

The Government should consult with young people before implementing new qualifications.

Rather than rushing the creation of T-levels, I feel it would be much more reasonable for the government to consult with young people themselves, and ensure they meet the range of needs and aspirations amongst those in education today.

Our education system doesn’t have an excellent reputation for supporting and enabling young people to make their own choices, and that needs to change. Fast.

We should be enabling progression through different routes, rather than requiring young people to commit themselves to one career route before they are ready. Many students are more suited to vocational pathways rather than university. Through the introduction of T-levels, I’m worried the education system will be even more inaccessible for so many young people.

The government shouldn’t be excluding young people. They should be striving for inclusion.

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