exam grades ofqual

Government plans to remove funding for thousands of courses, such as BTECs, that compete with T Levels and A-levels risk destabilising the qualifications market and adversely narrowing student choice, Ofqual has warned.

The exams regulator has today raised a number of concerns in response to the Department for Education’s level 3 qualifications review.

The DfE claims there is currently a “confusing landscape” of over 12,000 courses on offer to young people at level 3 and below, with multiple qualifications in the same subject areas available – many of which are “poor quality and offer little value to students or employers”.

Ofqual says it recognises the “potential benefits” of creating a “clearer landscape and “greater confidence in the currency of the qualification they achieve”, but warned of the scale of disruption this could cause under current recommendations.

“The DfE estimates that the qualifications that may no longer be funded could account for around 62 per cent of current non-A level 16 to 19-year-old enrolments at level 3 – and yet we know that the number of learners using qualifications other than A-levels to access higher education is growing, in particular the use of a combination of academic with smaller vocational and technical qualifications,” the response said.

“We can see from UCAS data about 2019 undergraduate admissions that the number of applicants accepted to higher education with A levels alone has fallen from 63 per cent in 2017 to around 60 per cent in 2019.

“While this accounts for more than 145,000 learners, nearly 22,000 learners were accepted with BTECs only in 2019 along with almost 18,000 learners who combined A levels with BTECs.”

Ofqual says this is “not an insignificant number” and “we should consider the impact on learners who may not be able to benefit in such a way when the reforms introduce an apparently more binary choice around qualification purpose and content”.

One key intention of the DfE’s proposed reforms is to establish two clearer pathways of study with A-levels and T Levels as the “programmes of choice” for 16 to 19-year old students.

The exams regulator said they see a “potential risk” in relation to T Levels in that “some of the design features may appear to learners as barriers to accessing the programme of study, in particular the size and structure of the T Level programme”.

While providers and exam boards are “required to ensure qualifications are accessible”, some students, including those with SEND or caring responsibilities, “may find T Levels less well-suited, too big or not sufficiently flexible for their individual study needs,” Ofqual warned.

The exams regulator added that the qualifications that appear more likely to be removed from funding currently have a higher proportion of students with “particular protected characteristics”, such as disability, ethnicity or gender, or who are disadvantaged.

It is therefore “important to consider how the qualifications funded in future can be designed to continue to allow a diverse range of learners to access level 3 qualifications effectively and successfully”.

Ofqual goes on to predict that defunding existing qualifications will lead to “some market instability in the years after the reforms as a number of centres will choose to change the qualifications they offer, particularly if they are reliant on public funding”.

The response reminds the DfE that government has a “responsibility” to identify where there are risks to students if, for example, an awarding organisation becomes “financially fragile or market instability causes a fall in confidence in regulated qualifications”.

It concludes by calling on the DfE to consider delaying the proposed reforms as 2021 will be an “exceptionally demanding year for awarding organisations because of the pandemic”, including the new arrangements that now need to be implemented following the cancellation of exams.

“We would ask the department to consider whether there are aspects of the proposed reforms for which implementation could be delayed by a year, in recognition of these exceptional circumstances,” Ofqual said.

Under the DfE’s plans, funding for the “majority” of qualifications that “overlap” with A-levels and T Levels would be removed by autumn 2023.

The deadline for the consultation was extended last week and is now 31 January. You can read it in full here.