Bill Watkin makes a plea to leave applied general qualifications where they are: sitting alongside A-levels in an academic sixth-form curriculum.
Sixth forms tend to offer a primarily academic curriculum to prepare students for higher education. Only a few engage in technical and professional education; most do either all A-levels or a blend of A-levels and applied general qualifications (AGQs) that encompass BTECs and other level three diplomas.
The government’s current post-16 skills plan, which grew out of the recent Sainsbury review of technical education, sets out an intention to review the place of AGQs. While it makes little mention of them overall – largely because it recognises they are part of an academic curriculum and not designed to be part of the technical education option – it also says: “We plan to review the contribution of these qualifications to preparing students for success in higher education; what part they can play in a reformed system; and the impact any reform would have on the government’s ambitions on widening participation.”
This is a cause for real concern.
AGQs are critically important options for sixth-form students:
1. They are valuable for those students who are capable of accessing a sixth-form education and progressing to higher education, but who do not see themselves doing A-levels. If a sixth form were to offer only A-levels, a number of students would disengage from sixth-form aspirations.
2. AGQs are invaluable for students of all abilities who learn different ways of working that will stand them in good stead in the workplace and in higher education: teamwork, problem-solving, independent and extended study, reflection and the application of learning represent an important skillset for all, including the most able.
3. They not only offer an alternative way of getting into university, but they also provide a more secure skillset that acts as a foundation for surviving and thriving there. AGQs have been reformed and are aligned to the new more rigorous standards in A-levels. Universities, including those in the Russell Group, welcome applicants with AGQs.
4. If students have a clear idea of their preferred career path, applied general qualifications are often a better choice than A-levels. Those studying applied qualifications in art and design, for example, will have a full portfolio of work, giving them a better chance of receiving a university offer.
It is vital a blend of A-levels and AGQs continue
Sixth forms often offer a blended curriculum of A-level and AGQs. As things currently stand, there is nothing to stop learners continuing to take a mix of sixth-form qualifications. But if after a government review, we fail to protect the place of AGQs in an academic curriculum, we will be losing a key lever for social mobility (disadvantaged learners tend to make excellent use of AGQs); we will be losing a rich and diverse curriculum that stimulates learners of all abilities; and we will be losing the skills and experiences that are so useful in university and the workplace.
Sixth-form colleges represent only 11 per cent of 16 to 19-year-old learners. But one in five A-levels is taken at a sixth-form college; they are specialist experts in sixth-form teaching and they do it very successfully. But they do it by offering a broad curriculum, with a variety of courses and qualifications at an exceptionally high standard. Schools, too, make good use of an A-level-AGQ blend and it is vital that this continue.
Students, parents and policymakers need to properly understand that an academic and aspirational curriculum should not be limited to A-levels. As the former Association of Colleges chief executive Martin Doel said recently, there is rigour in vocational qualifications and rigour in academic qualifications. It may take different forms, but A-levels and AGQs are valuable and valid qualifications in an academic journey.
The hope is, of course, that the pre-16 focus on EBacc subjects will not deter schools from offering a range of vocational qualifications to students of all abilities at key stage 4, to prepare them for advanced applied qualifications. In this respect, a government review of AGQs could make an important case for vocational pathways as rigorous, demanding, valued and relevant components of an aspirational and high-level curriculum.
Bill Watkin is chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association