By Catherine Sezen

Level 2 and below qualification consultation: Behind every qualification there is a learner 

The beginning of March saw the publication by the Department for Education of the much-anticipated Level 2 and below qualification consultation.  

How refreshing it is to see a focus on Level 2 and below.  

With a slight lull in the focus on Level 3, this is an opportunity for qualifications which have substantial numbers of enrolments, 764,000 for 16 to 19-year-olds and 1,245,700 for adults, to have their day in the sun.  

Scope 

For those of you who haven’t had the time to plough through the full 101-page document, the consultation outlines proposals for qualifications at Level 2, Level 1 and entry Level.  

Qualifications will be placed into one of 17 categories according to purpose, mainly progression to employment or to a higher level of study.  

There are also sections on English and maths stepping-stone qualifications, ESOL and personal and social development.  

Key questions 

In the early stages of the consultation process, questions raised by colleges fall into three main areas: firstly, the amount of change and potential disruption in the landscape across qualifications at Level 3 and below; secondly, why GCSE and Functional Skills aren't part of the review, and thirdly, the implications for qualifications and students of the removal of large technical qualifications at Level 1 combined with a move to two-year Level 2 technical programmes.  

Disruptive change 

The first concern is self-explanatory. There is a lot of change in the qualification landscape, from Entry Level to Level 5.  

To prepare for this, FE colleges need adequate staffing levels at a time when key technical industries are also looking for staff.  

FE colleges need time and funding for professional development.  

And the post-16 sector needs to ensure that feeder schools, young people, parents and carers, adult learners are aware of the new vocational pathways.  

All of this takes time when we are still recovering from Covid-19.  

English and maths reform 

If there is one area where FE colleges are crying out for reform it is of English and maths qualifications.

According to the consultation document, 53% of 16 to 19 enrolments are at Level 2 and below, and 31% of adult enrolments are on GCSEs and Functional Skills. Nonetheless, the review doesn’t include these qualifications. Only the smaller ‘stepping-stone’ qualifications are in scope, which in FE colleges are delivered in very small numbers if at all.  

Stepping-stone qualifications that are available for funding are at entry level whereas the bulk of students need to work towards Level 1 and 2 covered by Functional Skills and GCSE. There have long been concerns that GCSE doesn’t really focus on the needs of students (and employers).  

Recently questions have been raised about reformed Functional Skills and the fact that in maths in particular achievement has fallen dramatically, something that can’t just be attributed to the impact of the pandemic.  

Two year Level 2 Study programmes   

The consultation document proposes that, for 16 to 19-year-old students, Level 2 vocational/technical qualifications preparing students for employment should be delivered as part of a two-year study programme, whereas qualifications that prepare a student for Level 3 study will be delivered over a year. For adults there would be smaller technical qualifications.  

End of large Level 1 technical qualifications   

At Level 1, programmes of study would be pre-technical introductions to either a Level 2 programme leading to employment or to a Level 2 programme leading to Level 3. There would no longer be Level 1 programmes which include large technical qualifications.  

Viability 

Running separate qualifications for adults and young people and then separate programmes for those who wish to go to employment and those who wish to progress to Level 3 immediately raises questions of viability.  

We need to discuss through the consultation process whether the three types of qualification could be nested or co-taught.  

Even with the best information, advice and guidance and diagnostics, young people change their minds about progression options over a year or two. Currently many students complete a one-year Level 1 and a one-year Level 2.  

In theory a two-year programme may not look that different from a one plus one option, but patterns of study differ.  In Hair and Beauty for example some students start at Level 1, others at Level 2. In construction some students complete Level 1 and then move into an apprenticeship at 17. Would this still be possible? 

How will young people respond? 

This brings us to the key issue, the implications not so much for qualifications, but for the people who take them.  

In most cases, and for young people in particular, students who take qualifications at Level 2 and below post 16 are, as the consultation document acknowledges, more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds or have special educational needs.  

What is crucial is to build confidence, experience of success and enable successful progression whether that is to employment or to further study.  

Enrolment on existing ‘Level 2 and Below’ courses prevents NEET 

Level 2 and below is where appropriate intervention and investment can have the biggest impact and prevent 16-18 year-olds becoming NEET (i.e. not in education, employment or training).    

And yet, the consultation is quiet on additional study programme hours and funding at Level 2 and below to support additional enrichment, small group support in English and maths, organising work placements and comprehensive SEND and pastoral support.   

True, there are the additional 40 hours a year from 2022. But it is questionable whether an extra hour a week is enough to make a significant difference.  

Beyond qualifications 

Qualifications are only part of the picture, especially at Level 2 and below. What is really needed is greater investment and of course a comprehensive review of post 16 English and maths. 

Catherine Sezen is Senior Policy Manager, FE at the Association of Colleges