Are qualifications from British schools fit for purpose?
What are the qualifications currently offered to post 16 students in the UK and do they prepare them for an uncertain future?
by: Rory Buccheri
29 Aug 2023
Illustration: Sam Peet
Every week a new debate on the school curriculum kicks off: ‘Add more maths’ or ‘add more languages and history’ or ‘add more tech’ instead. It’s a debate that the UK’s prime minister, Rishi Sunak, stoked the fire of this summer when he announced plans to cap “low-value” degrees, value being determined by economic terms. Defining ‘useful’ or ‘useless’ degrees comes from an anxious need to know how we are preparing our students for an uncertain future as society navigates crisis after crisis. Examining the qualifications or vocational training opportunities for students at 16 shows how we are currently equipping them for higher education, beginning a career or preparing them for their future as new technologies – such as AI – take centre stage.
What post-16 qualifications are available?
There are approximately 20 post-16 qualifications across the UK. They are divided into:
* Academic or ‘studying paths’ (A levels, Cambridge Pre-Us, Scottish Highers, Advanced Highers, Baccalaureates, GCSEs, EPQ, National 5s, Core Maths)
* Technical or ‘job-related study’ (NVQs, SVQs, T Levels, Technical certificates and TechBac)
* Functional/core skills qualifications which, according to UCAS, ‘focus on developing and using skills’ as part of any traineeship or apprenticeship
Whereas the set path for pupils choosing ‘studying paths’ such as A levels and Scottish Highers is to continue to university, practice-based qualifications such as the BTECs and NVQs can give direct access to specific job areas. The feedback on either side is often contradictory, with universities lamenting the lack of ‘applied’ skills coming from students at post-16 level, whereas technical studies pupils struggle to get into university based on their practical background (as reported by the Social Market Foundation).
According to Eloise Skinner, psychotherapist and enterprise adviser for the mayor of London’s education and careers strategy, getting rid of this divide is the first step towards better preparing pupils. She said, “It’s no longer the case that we need to make a strict distinction between an academic pathway and a technical route, dividing students at an early stage.” Skinner suggests instead we envision the educational system “as an opportunity to equip young people with transferable skills” – for example, prioritising communication, flexibility and knowledge of new tech.
What are our qualifications missing today? And how do we bridge the gap?
The rollout of T levels aimed to address the gap. Introduced in 2020, the two-year vocational courses could be chosen as an alternative to A levels, enabling direct access to the workforce that still retained core learning opportunities, forming part of the “skills revolution”, as Sunak branded it at the beginning of 2022. But Ofsted reported that while students were confident in their abilities and employers were eager to invest in them, their classroom time failed to cover topics in depth and the quality of placements varied considerably across the country.
T for technology
The T levels study also highlighted some positive points. For example, it seems employers are keen on getting involved with pupils during their studies, and that could play a part long before pupils pick what qualifications they want to pursue. For Skinner, this is where we can reap the benefits of an increasingly digitised education. Indeed, this applies to any qualification with both T and A levels.
The latest equality of access briefing by the House of Commons found that working class, Black British and disabled students are statistically among the least likely to go into higher education. A recent Social Market Foundation report highlighted the connection with post-16 qualifications, reporting how over half of working-class and Black British pupils use BTEC and technical qualifications to get into higher education. However, not all universities count vocational qualifications towards entry requirements. In the case of T levels, there is a slight improvement, with 134 universities accepting the qualification as valid entry requirement.
How can we better prepare our students for the future?
The rise of AI has seen education bodies UK-wide review their practices. T levels have shown how employers are increasingly interested in being involved while pupils are still in school. Regardless of the qualification type, that involvement can take the shape of employer visits and work experience placements, and access to the latter can be facilitated with digital placements and year-round career access to benefit disabled students and children from lower socio-economic backgrounds. This small change would spill over into university learning too, as both academic-oriented and practical background students would find themselves developing flexible skills.
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