The government is in the midst of rolling out its plans to introduce radical reforms to post 16 vocational and technical qualifications. But even the best laid plans don’t always come to fruition, and with the prospect of a general election and a possible change of government in 2024, the reforms may not go ahead at quite the same pace or in quite the same way as they are currently set out. We know, for example, that Labour is concerned about the potential impact of the reforms and has said that, should it come to power, it would pause the reforms and take stock.
So what are the current plans?
According to the current government’s published timetable, by September 2025, we will see the defunding of a great many existing vocational and technical qualifications, with more being defunded in 2026. The plan is to clear the decks to leave T Levels and A Levels as the main options available for students at 16-19. This would lead to the demise of most of the larger BTECs, OCR Cambridge Technicals, and other qualifications sometimes referred to as Applied General Qualifications (AGQs).
The reforms do not come as a surprise as they have been in the offing for quite some time, dating back to the recommendations of Lord Sainsbury in his panel’s Report on Technical Education, published back in April 2016. But they are far from universally popular. The Protect Student Choice campaign claims in a recent report that at least 155,000 young people – 13% of all sixth form students in England – could be left without a suitable study programme from 2026, given the planned reduction in AGQs and the slow growth of T levels.
Some are questioning whether schools and colleges should be asked to prioritise such significant curriculum change when they face a teacher recruitment and retention crisis, are grappling with crumbling estates and seeking to shore up creaking budgets. They are also faced with the challenges associated with the post covid landscape, lost learning, dealing with soaring mental health and well-being issues, and supporting those young people most impacted by the cost of living crisis. Others, of course, argue that the reforms are exactly what is needed to raise technical standards and focus on qualifications on areas of skills demand which will best help young people secure a prosperous future.
What everyone can agree on is that there is some uncertainty about how, when and whether the reforms will go ahead and how much resource to commit, knowing that the first big wave of reform is due to land in 2025.
These are real imponderables and schools and colleges will want to make their own decisions about how to respond. What OCR can do is try to make as clear as possible the qualification offers it will be introducing, and those it will seek to protect during a period of policy uncertainty.
There are two strands to our approach
OCR is doing everything it can to support schools and colleges to make sure students have access to quality, funded qualifications, whatever the eventuality, in areas that might otherwise not be so well served. And we are doing our very best to explain our offer, the reforms and potential changes to them with the utmost transparency.
There are two key features to our response. Under the current proposed reforms, students opting for the ‘academic’ pathway, will be able to take newly coined Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs), in vocational subjects which are the size of a single A Level, alongside some A Levels.
We see a real opportunity to introduce something new and valuable here and are proud to be launching a new suite of qualifications, Cambridge Advanced Nationals. These level 3 qualifications in vocational subjects are (mainly) the same size as, and designed to be taken alongside, A Levels. As such, they fit within the definitions of an AAQ, and, subject to forthcoming approval processes, can be offered in the context of this government’s planned reforms.
These new qualifications are recognised and supported by many universities as offering progression to undergraduate study, are available for first teach in 2025 (first wave) and we have worked with many university departments to ensure the content is bang up to date and represents ideal preparation for undergraduate study. We have also worked with teachers to make sure these qualifications are simple and engaging to deliver. The feedback so far is extremely positive. If you would like to know more about them and download the draft specifications draft sample assessment materials and mapping guides, take a look here: https://teach.ocr.org.uk/cambridge-advanced-nationals
This takes us to the second feature of our approach. Cambridge Advanced Nationals will meet new and existing needs regardless of changes to policy and/or government, but they won’t meet the needs of all young people wanting to study vocational and technical subjects. They are not specialist technical qualifications specifically designed to prepare students directly for employment, nor do they have the size and associated potential for breadth and specialism that are a feature of many full-time programmes that cover a single technical subject – these needs are met by our existing, proven and popular AGQs, known as OCR Cambridge Technicals. Cambridge Technicals meet the needs of a wider range of students than the T Levels that are meant to replace them. Therefore, if there were a change of approach to the current reforms, which moved away from the wholesale defunding of existing AGQs like our Cambridge Technicals, we would expect to continue to make them available for delivery by schools and colleges.
In conclusion, OCR’s new Cambridge Advanced Nationals offer something new, fresh and distinctive that will support progression to university study for a large number of students. They will do this better than many existing smaller Applied General Qualifications and they sit squarely in an academic pathway, easily complemented by A Levels. But we hope that any government will recognise the place that larger vocational qualifications play for some young people, for whom neither the academic route nor T Levels can provide the choice that serves them best.