Let’s go round again: reforming 16-19 qualifications

‘We need our 16-19 education system to be the best in the world. We need to make sure that every young person – no matter their circumstances or where they live – can reach their potential and leave education with the knowledge and skills to thrive in a world-leading economy.’ (DfE 2023, p.5)

If the above quote evokes a sense of deja-vu, it’s probably because you’ve seen it all before. Education reform is nothing new; A-levels, which have been in existence since 1951, have gone from being linear, to modular and then back to linear. AS Levels have come and gone, and BTECs, which have existed since 1984 (although only in their current form since 1996) will be mostly gone by September 2024 to make room for T-levels. And let’s not forget GNVQs, NVQs, AVCEs, and 14-19 Diplomas. Confused? So are students and employers. So last October, as part of their continued pursuit of educational excellence, the government announced proposals for an ‘Advanced British Standard’ (ABS). The ABS is a baccalaureate-style level 3 qualification for 16-19-year-olds which will streamline further education and provide a clear offer for all students that supports them to progress into their chosen occupation or further study (DfE 2023). Given the complexity of the current level 3 qualification landscape, perhaps a more streamlined approach is to be welcomed.

Under the ABS, students will be able to take a wider breadth of subjects, including technical and academic subjects. This will give them a greater degree of flexibility over their future career options by not blocking pathways from age 16. Not only this, but taught time would also be increased, creating more time to study more subjects, and extra support for the students who need it. Whilst at first sight this may sound like an excellent plan, scratch beneath the surface and the cracks appear in ever increasing numbers. Additional subjects and increased teaching time would require not just an increase in the number of teachers overall, but also in teachers of shortage subjects. Due to the current teacher shortages, many teachers are already having to work outside of their specialisms to cover areas of science and engineering (Perry et al. 2024, in press). These teachers need additional subject-specialist professional development, but they frequently state they are too busy to participate in professional development (Adams et al., 2023). Added to which, more time with teachers will not automatically lead to improved outcomes for students, particularly if subjects are not taught by specialist teachers.

Given Rishi Sunak’s well-known love of maths, it will come as no surprise that for the first time, every student will study some form of maths but also English up to the age of 18. Whilst there is a case for continued study of maths and English as applied subjects, it is hard to see how someone struggling with maths at age 16 will benefit from another two years of it. After all, they will already have had at least 12 years of teaching by this point. More effective maths teaching needs to be supported earlier on so that children develop positive attitudes towards maths from the very beginning of their education journey. Furthermore, maths and English should be integral across all subjects (e.g. use of communication and numeracy skills across the disciplines) so that students can see their relevance across and beyond the curriculum. We should also perhaps consider a functional skills qualification at level 3 in maths and English to enable students to become more literate and numerate without having to learn A-level type maths and English that they may well never use.

Finally, by harnessing the best parts of both A levels and T levels’ (DfE 2023, p.3) into a single qualification the ABS will ‘deliver on the promise of parity of esteem between academic and technical education’ (Sunak 2023). For nearly three decades, skills have been a defining characteristic of vocational education reforms, written through the economic policy narrative like a stick of rock. So too, has been the separation of academic and vocational education, reinforcing the deficit view that vocational education is for 16-18-year-olds who are ‘adjudged not to be ‘academic’ (Duckworth and Smith 2018:2). The ABS will change that. But will it? We are told the ABS will ‘remove the artificial separation between technical and academic qualifications’, whilst also allowing students to study ‘predominantly technical (including an occupational specialist route) or academic components, or a blend of both’. The qualification might be called the same thing (mostly), and that is certainly progress, but only time will tell whether the ABS and ABS (occupational) will be treated as equivalent by universities and employers.

Without doubt, we need to achieve parity of academic and vocational study if we are to heal the vocational-academic divide that has plagued education for decades. However, given the length of time individuals stay in the workforce compared to the time they stay in compulsory education, stability and longevity of vocational qualifications must be a priority. So, if 16-19 qualifications are to be reformed to establish an ABS, it should be maintained for a long period of time. We cannot keep going round again.

Dr Sarah Boodt is a senior lecturer in Teacher Education. Her research focus is teacher learning, particularly for further education (FE) teachers. She convenes the What-Works-Teach-meets which is a national initiative that seeks to make the FE sector more sustainable by supporting trainee FE teachers to build professional networks and develop their subject pedagogy.
Charlynne Pullen is a Principal Research Fellow in SIRKE, and Research Lead for the National Centre of Excellence in Degree Apprenticeships at Sheffield Hallam University. Her research focuses on policy and its implementation in post-16 vocational education, apprenticeships, and skills.

Adams, L., Coburn, S., Sanders-Earley, A., Harris, H., Taylor, J, & Taylor, B. (2023). Working lives of teachers and leaders – wave 1. Department for Education. Working lives of teachers and leaders – wave 1: core report (publishing.service.gov.uk)
Duckworth, V. and Smith, R. (2018), Breaking the triple lock: further education and transformative teaching and learning, Education + Training, 60 (6) 529-543. https://doi.org/10.1108/ET-05-2018-0111
Perry, E., Hartley, R., & de Winter, J. (2024). A Scoping Study into the Long-term Impacts of Additional Subject Specialism Professional Development, Gatsby Foundation (In press)






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