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An update on post-16, level 3 qualification landscape

The government is in the process of reforming post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below. Alison Maynard, Deputy Principal of New College Durham has provided a summary of the changes so far, and what’s still to come.

Government policy has long championed employers being at the heart of technical education and, in 2021, the Skills for Jobs paper outlined some of the greatest educational reforms we can expect to experience in our lifetime. The reforms aim to ensure the availability of post-16 technical education and training to support individuals to develop the skills needed to progress into high quality jobs and improve national productivity.

Key to this reform is the simplification and streamlining of the current level 3 offer, which changes the landscape of the post-16 offer to ensure publicly-funded qualifications at level 3 are relevant, lead to positive progression and meet employer need. These changes will come into force in 2025, with foundations for these streamlined systems already in play.

What does the current level 3 offer look like?

The academic A level route is the most familiar of the post-16 routes, alongside apprenticeships for those learners preferring to engage in high quality learning whist in employment. However, since 2020, the shift in landscape has been apparent, with a handful of post-16 providers across the region being part of an early adoption delivery phase of T levels – new, highly technical and practical qualifications designed with employers. The North East Local Enterprise Partnership (North East LEP) has been supporting four general further education (GFE) colleges, including New College Durham, and a school, St Thomas More Catholic School, to design and deliver these new, highly technical routes.

In February, we were delighted that the first national T level conference aimed at businesses took place in Newcastle, delivered in partnership by the North East LEP and the Department for Education. It included question and answer panels with our very own T level students. Engaging business in the design and delivery of industry placements is no mean feat given the region will deliver the second highest number of T levels nationally. However, with the first cohort of graduates successfully progressing into jobs, higher degree apprenticeships or full-time higher education, we are positive that we can support the wider roll-out, working collaboratively with schools, neighbouring post-16 providers and employers. You can find out more about T levels in the region here.

What will the new level 3 offer look like?

When qualification reform has been talked about it has often been framed as ‘T levels vs A levels’, which is misleading given the reforms include the introduction of new level 3 qualifications: Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs) and Technical Qualifications (TQs) as a high-quality alternative for students to choose from, either as an alternative to a T level, or as part of a mixed study programme including A levels.

For example, small AAQs are equivalent to one A level and will include subjects where there are A levels if they are in priority areas (for example, science, technology, engineering and manufacturing subjects) and subjects A levels don’t cover that support higher education progression (for example, health and social care). In contrast, large AAQs, equivalent to the size of three A levels, are an alternative to A levels, supporting progression to higher education in areas commonly less well-served by A levels (for example, performing arts).

Alongside T levels there will be additional TQs, with some available for both 16-18 year olds and adults, and others only available to adults. We are waiting to hear more about the level 3 skills available to adults alongside the outcome of the level 2 qualification reform.  

When is it all going to happen?

The expansion of T levels begins in September 2023, with public funding being removed for those qualifications overlapping with the three T levels (construction and the built environment, digital, and education and childcare) rolled out as part of the early adoption phase. From September 2025, the first teaching of the newly-approved qualifications commences with cycle two commencing in 2026.

How does this impact schools now?

There are clearly several opportunities for schools, which bring additional responsibilities to consider. For example, GFE colleges are considering their level 3 qualification offer, which will look different to what current Year 9s will experience. With that in mind, subject teachers and career leaders will benefit from understanding what the local post-16 qualification offer looks like and how it will be changing.

Our experience has shown that even after three years of national and regional promotion, embedding new qualifications such as T levels takes time. The introduction of small and large AAQs, and soon to be released TQs, requires us all to understand progression pathways in order to help parents/carers and pupils to get their heads around this new offer.

In addition, schools with sixth forms will need to consider what their own level 3 offer looks like, be that preparing careers staff with the new language or building the knowledge, understanding and capacity of teachers for direct delivery.

Our experiences, working with the North East LEP in the T level Delivery Group and being the lead partner in the Institute of Technology for the region, which supports collaboration into higher education progression routes, has highlighted the strength of partnership working during significant change. We are therefore committed, as I know my colleagues across all GFE Colleges in the North East LEP region are, to working with our local schools to build the knowledge and understanding of what the post-16 landscape will look like.

See further information on the reforms, including what will no longer be delivered and what is planned to be introduced, here.