The Post-16 Skills Plan: What do school leaders really need to know?

The government’s new Skills Plan describes significant changes to vocational qualifications for post-16 pupils  – but what does it mean for schools? Editor Laura McInerney explains the relevant parts.


When post-16 education changes are announced it can be difficult for schools to know which bits will affect them.

Today’s announcement of a Skills Plan from the DfE is exciting and, potentially, revolutionary. But it hasn’t been written for a schools audience. (In fact, I wonder if anyone writing the policy spoke to people in schools at all).


So, what do teachers need to know?


Many things are proposed, but 5 changes have obvious implications for schools:


1. The plan is to have 15 full-time technical pathways after the age of 16, each with a single awarding body. At present lots of vocational qualifications are available post-16, with lots of different names, which makes them difficult to navigate. In future, the plan is for just 15 technical options, each offered by only one exam board under one name. This should make it easier to advise students who want to do vocational courses.


2. BUT, there is also an expectation that 16-year-olds will choose vocational OR academic routes. The plan doesn’t specifically say pupils will no longer be able to take A-levels along with, say, a BTEC certificate, even though that seems  the overall intention of the paper. IN FACT, on page 12 of the report a graphic says the ‘academic’ route would include A-levels and ‘applied general qualifications’. We checked, and this includes smaller BTEC qualifications. So, at present, school sixth forms offering a mixture of both should be unaffected. (Lord Sainsbury who wrote a report the plan is based on has also confirmed this).


3. There is a plan to “review” general qualifications. The report doesn’t say how, but it appears the government wants to look again at which qualifications will count as academic and vocational. I’m sure they just did this. Maybe their team now has nothing to do?


4. A “transition” year is planned for 16 year olds not ready to enter either an A-level route OR the new ‘technical’ pathway. This is very vague with scant mention of learners with special needs or low attainment, which is disappointing as they are often over-represented on vocational routes.


5. Laws are planned forcing schools to let people from outside organisations into schools to talk about their post-16 options. We have covered this before. What the legislation will actually look like is unknown. Potentially even to the government.


So, those are the bits affecting schools.

But, beyond the policies, there are some interesting potential consequences worth bearing in mind


1. If only one exam board (also known as ‘awarding organisations’) offers each qualification, and the process works, the government may re-think its stance on GCSEs and A-levels. Schools minister Nick Gibb has been agitating for some time to have one exam board for each subject. To do this, the government would need to run a competition, once every few years, and select an exam board capable of running the subject. If there are quality issues once the contract is running, the selected awarding organisation would have the contract terminated, and a new competition begins.

This sounds easy, but two things of note. One, the government has poor form on running this sort of competition (think trains). And two, if all the people involved in a subject all go to work for one exam board for five years it will be really difficult for the other boards to put in a competitive bid the second time around, because all the expertise will already be sucked up elsewhere. (This is different to trains, where running one line is much like running the others so operators can bid for each line on offer).


2. If vocational qualifications typically offered in school sixth forms reduce in popularity (eg one-grade BTECs) this could mean awarding organisations stop offering them. Which would make it difficult for school sixth forms, and sixth form colleges, to offer a mixture of vocational and academic qualifications between the age of 16 and 19. It will become a straight choice: one or the other.


3. Schools will be expected to help pupils choose an ‘academic’ or ‘vocational’ route by the end of compulsory schooling. It says this very clearly in the plan. However, the fact schools will be able to offer a mixture of both academic and vocational qualifications to the same pupil sort of suggests it isn’t a real division. It’s just that the mixture route will be called ‘academic’. (Yes, that’s confusing). What will likely happen is schools will be legally forced to to let third-party organisations come in and talk to pupils about their post-16 options. I call this the ‘forced assembly’ policy. As it will probably be fulfilled by school leaders letting outsiders ramble on each week to their year 11s on a Monday morning form time, and frantically trying to remind them not overrun because the Monday period 1 teachers are getting increasingly annoyed. It’s that or ‘drop-down’ afternoons. In Year 11. You can imagine how that will go down with teachers already struggling to fit in all the content of the new ‘harder’ GCSEs.


4. Schools could offer the technical pathway. Looking at the Skills Plan there is no actual reason why a school couldn’t offer some of the new technical pathways. A few are to be delivered via apprenticeships only, but ones such as ‘business and administrative’ or ‘health and science’ don’t seem that different to the business and health vocational options already offered in school sixth forms. More integration with employers is promised for the new options, but that was true in the old Diplomas which many schools delivered.


5. UTCs will still exist, and will likely offer at least one technical pathway. Given UTCs are built more like schools and school sixth forms this shows it must be possible for schools to offer them.


6. The “transition” year is a mess and may impact on options for learners who don’t attain high GCSE grades. It is a poorly thought-out part of the plan at present. I suspect it may disappear, or become another review of its own.


So, some implications, but nothing earth-shattering.


What I don’t understand are these TWO big issues which the skills minister, Nick Boles, needs to address as soon as possible.

1. Why the heck are special needs and low attaining pupils not better addressed in this paper? Many learners leave school without achieving decent GCSE grades and so won’t be able to take the new technical pathway. Many of these pupils, who struggle with certain academic aspects because of special needs or learning difficulties, often thrive in vocational education. But they appear not to have been considered here. The “transition” idea is so vague as to be laughable.

2. Who in schools was involved in this review? I know most post-16 education doesn’t happen in school sixth forms, but an increasing amount does, and the fact this isn’t mentioned at all in the paper is a huge blind spot. Also, if schools can still offer a mixed vocational/academic route, why is all the rhetoric around some BIG CHOICE at 16? What’s really being offered is just ‘clearer vocational options’ for 16-19 year olds. Which is totally sensible and would be a much better sell than “we’re going to divide everyone into two teams at the end of school”.


Ultimately, the plan looks quite smart. Pull the patchwork of qualifications into one quilt, present customers (pupils) with 15 clear options for vocational education and have them lead to a qualification attached to a job. That’s a good policy. The impact on schools, though, seems quite small. Let’s keep fingers crossed it will all be achieved to plan.



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  1. Access by third parties into schools to give info re careers options need not be (and should not be) the ‘forced assembly’. Corralling Year 10s or 11s into the Hall to listen to a recruiter from the Forces or a big local employer (if such companies still exist) if not effective. Worse, it’s time wasting for pupils, teachers and the person doing the talking.
    A school with good CEG provision can ensure access more efficiently by, say, targeted meetings between employers and pupils interested in that particular employment area. These can be informal over coffee (which the pupils prepare and treat the employer as a guest). These could even take place after school to avoid pupils missing classes. Other options include a well-stocked careers library, visits to employers, ensuring pupils are aware of all 16+ options etc.

  2. Just to confirm – it is not just the small single-size BTECs that will continue to be available via the AG route. In most sectors there are Diplomas (2-A level) and Extended Diplomas (3-A level) as well. Students could take a full BTEC Extended Diploma course under the Axademic pathway, as well as a combination of A level and BTEC.