Earlier this year, the Government confirmed its plans to create two new learning routes. From September 2024, most learners will be presented with a choice of two types of learning programmes they can take at 16-19. The first of these will be called the ‘academic route’, and the second, the ‘technical route’.
The primary purpose of all qualifications in the academic route is to prepare students for progression to university.
Within this route, students can typically study A Levels or a blend of A Levels and vocational qualifications. The vocational qualifications available will normally be the size of a single A Level. However, there is the potential to take vocational qualifications that make up a full-time programme in their own right, providing they can be shown to provide progression to specific Higher Education courses (in the Creative and Performing Arts, for example).
Over the last five years, the number of students taking a blend of A Levels and vocational qualifications, such as OCR’s Cambridge Technicals, has grown significantly and this kind of programme is already widely used to access a wide range of undergraduate courses.
The primary purpose of all qualifications in the technical route is to prepare students for further training, employment or an Apprenticeship.
The Government’s new T Level qualifications form a key part of this route. As T Levels are phased in, funding for qualifications in the same subject as a T Level will have their funding withdrawn. The intention is that this will lead to a large number of existing, popular and highly valued large and full-time vocational qualifications being replaced by T Levels. This has been the cause of considerable concern. Full time qualifications that are sufficiently technical in nature and do not overlap with T Level content/subjects will still be funded. Apprenticeship programmes will continue to be funded in the technical route and some specialist vocational qualifications will also continue to attract funding.
OCR’s views on the Level 3 reforms
Along with many teachers and school and college leaders, OCR is concerned that the two proposed routes are not sufficiently broad to meet the needs of all Level 3 students. Existing full-time Level 3 qualifications which face being withdrawn have a strong track record of providing routes into further training and higher education, particularly for those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is likely to have a detrimental impact on social mobility.
We believe, therefore, that if the implementation of these reforms is to go ahead, this must be undertaken with great care; safeguards must be in place which monitor the impact of the reforms and ensure no learners are left behind. Also, teachers and their institutions will need time and resource to adapt to the changes. We believe that the current implementation timelines are too short and risk removing learning and progression opportunities at Level 3 without the new opportunities being fully evaluated or available to students in all regions.
Whilst we welcome the introduction of T Levels as high-quality technical qualifications which will serve many learners well and help to address some of the skills shortages facing employers, we do not believe that they will be suited to all learners who would not normally opt for the academic route.
We welcome the decision that there will continue to be funding for vocational qualifications in the academic route - the blend of A Levels with more practical, skills-based qualifications has already proven a successful combination, valued by many Higher Education institutions. However, we believe there is a case to be made for further flexibility in the size and mix of qualifications that should be available to learners in the academic route. In particular, we don’t think it is always necessary for vocational qualifications in the academic pathway to be used with A levels. The correct combination of vocational qualifications can be a powerful post-16 learning experience.
Will OCR’s Level 3 Cambridge Technicals which are already taken alongside A Levels in large numbers, remain unchanged?
No. We anticipate that the Department for Education (DfE) and the qualifications regulator, Ofqual, will introduce new criteria for the recognition and funding of qualifications in the academic route. We anticipate more information about this will be published shortly. Refreshed versions of our existing provision, and possibly some new subject areas, meeting new DfE criteria, are likely to be available for first teach in September 2024.
Any new or existing qualifications in the technical route will be subject to further approval criteria developed by the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE). IfATE will require such qualifications to have a direct relationship with National Occupational Standards where they exist and for such qualifications to be distinct in content from any T Levels.
Does OCR plan to offer a T Level?
T levels are awarded to awarding organisations on the basis of competitive tender (bids).
We have been involved in submitting previous bids, and we don’t rule out being involved in future bids. With a large portfolio of general and other vocational qualifications, we’ve been focused over the last two years on supporting learners taking our existing qualifications to achieve the results they need to progress during the pandemic.
What is OCR doing in response to the post-16 reforms?
OCR continues to discuss the reform of vocational and technical qualifications with the DfE and a range of stakeholders. We listen carefully to the views of teachers and school and college leaders, and we continue to hold roundtable events, stakeholder forums, focus groups and insight panels to explore the best ways forward. As a member of the Joint Council for Qualifications, we recently supported a conference on ‘Making vocational education reforms work for everyone’. We also continue to engage with stakeholders through regular attendance and platform appearances at local and national conferences.
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Note: Since the publication of this article, the Department for Education has announced a year's delay to the post-16 reform timetable.