Pause post-16 education shake-up or risk worsening skills shortages, warn MPs

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The Government must pause its shake-up of post-16 qualifications or risk worsening the UK’s skills shortages, MPs have warned, as campaigners branded its proposed reforms “misguided” and “reckless”.

Plans to withdraw funding from tried and tested applied general qualifications (AGQs) before there is time to assess the rollout of new T-levels could end up narrowing student choice, the Education Committee said.

Concerns have been raised over T-levels since they were first introduced in 2019 as technical alternatives to A-levels, according to the group of cross-party MPs.

These include unequal regional access to industry placements and an apparent decline in employer interest in offering placements, according to a report published on Friday.

Ministers are being urged to place a moratorium on the defunding of AGQs until there is “robust evidence” that T-levels are effective at helping students progress, promoting social mobility and meeting industry needs.

MPs are also calling for a “wholesale review” of 16-19 funding after hearing of the difficulties the sector faced due to real-terms reductions in funding between 2010 and 2020.

Tory MP and chairman of the committee Robin Walker said: “We welcome the Government’s ambition to declutter the post-16 landscape and raise the status of technical qualifications.

“The Prime Minister was right when he hailed further education as a silver bullet that could boost productivity by giving workers the right skills for an evolving economy.

“We were also buoyed by evidence that T-levels are proving successful.

“But it is essential that DfE (Department for Education) promotes them among students and the thousands of employers needed to supply work placements, or else T-levels will fail to make a meaningful difference.

“We have concerns about the feasibility of scaling up T-levels, and as it stands, the planned withdrawal of AGQs will constrict student choice and could deepen the skills shortages that these reforms are meant to fix, including in vital sectors such as social care – effectively pulling the rug from under the further education system.

“We call for a moratorium on these reforms until T-levels are fully rolled out and there is robust evidence to show they adequately replace AGQs.”

“We also call on DfE to reverse the sharp decline in apprenticeship starts and address the perverse situation where the majority of apprenticeships are being given to older, already highly qualified adults at the expense of young people, and the taxpayer,” he said.

AGQs are Level 3 qualifications, such as BTECs, for students who want to undertake a broad study of a specific vocational area.

The DfE is planning to remove funding approval for a number of qualifications that overlap with T-levels and it is unclear how many AGQs might remain once its reforms are complete, the committee said.

The department has argued that a large number of qualifications creates “bewildering choice” for students and employers and that there is a need to streamline the options.

But school leaders accused the Government of a “reckless” push to jettison BTECs without having “the slightest idea” how successful T-levels will be in practice.

Julie McCulloch, director of policy at the Association of School and College Leaders (ASCL), said: “The Government’s reckless rush to jettison BTECs and similar qualifications before T-levels are properly embedded has been opposed by pretty much everybody in the education sector.

“However, ministers have dug their heels in and appear to be determined to scrap a proven set of qualifications which lead to higher education, apprenticeships and careers without having the slightest idea of how well T-levels will work in practice.

“We can only hope that they now pay heed to the warnings of the Education Select Committee and introduce a more sensible and measured approach which is in the interests of young people.”

The union also echoed the committee’s call for a review of 16-19 funding, claiming the allocations for post-16 education are “hopelessly inadequate”.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the Government’s plans were “misguided” and “damaging” to post-16 education.

“As the cross-party Education Committee is now backing calls from the Protect Student Choice coalition and the wider group of students, parents, parliamentarians, and employers that support the campaign, we hope that ministers will finally start to listen and rethink their damaging proposals,” Mr Watkin said.

“The life chances of tens of thousands of young people will be put at serious risk if the Government does not pause its misguided plan to scrap most BTEC qualifications.

“We hope the publication of today’s report encourages the Government to adopt a balanced and evidence-based approach to policymaking in this area.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Our post-16 qualifications system provides a ladder of opportunity for young people from all backgrounds, so every qualification leads to a rewarding career, either through higher education or skilled work.

“We welcome the committee’s recognition of the importance of our reforms. We will consider the recommendations and respond in due course.”

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