The exams market and ‘the single provider’ debate

One of the more controversial recommendations for the new T levels qualifications is that each should be provided by a single organization. This would be a major change from how qualifications post age 14 are administered currently.

This is not a new idea and below we reflect on some of the main arguments made over the years

Interestingly it also runs counter to the recommendations of a separate review on by Frontier Economics in July last year on behalf of the DfE

A market for qualifications

It can strike people as odd that there is a market in exams such that schools and colleges can choose from a range of providers., between three and five in the case of A levels and GCSEs and around 120 for vocational qualifications. It is important to note however that these organizations need to be licensed by the regulator

The case for and against

The case for competition is that this leads to better quality of specification design, customer service and innovation. This in turn means that the quality of what is taught in schools will improve as schools and colleges choose the best on offer.

The argument against is most often centered on the potential for ‘a race to the bottom’ s schools choose easier boards

Again it is important to note the role of the regulator in licensing providers and as part of this keeping a close eye on awards to ensure comparability between boards

Vocational qualifications and consumer choice, a different argument

The ‘race to the bottom’ argument for T levels can be similarly rebutted

However, perhaps more compelling is the argument that the vast array of qualifications and providers impacts negatively on student’s choices

However, Frontier economics were commissioned to look specifically at vocational qualifications and were clear that the risks of a single provider outweighed those of continuation of the current model. Notably operational risks of eggs in one basket and the loss of an opportunity to revert as industry expertise is lost

Altain’s perspective has historically been that there are bigger concerns for the education system to address and that a change from a multiple board approach risks being a distraction.

However, we can see that consumer choice in vocational is an issue that will repay further thought ideally leading to a solution that doesn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater

Your views?

Which approach is best, single or multiple provider? How significant is the economists view? Can we  meet students’ needs for clarity of choice without resorting to the single provider model?

T levels and Diploma parallels: forewarned and forearmed?

A common theme throughout T level consultation responses concerned parallels between proposed T level and 14 to 19 Diploma introduced 10 years prior.

Given this we have shared some recollections for those new to the sector together with some thoughts on implications for T level success.

The Diploma

The Diploma was a high-profile qualification introduced in 2008 in the wake of the Tomlinson report which had separately proposed a new Baccalaureate style qualification. The key difference is that the latter was proposed as replacing A levels which was ultimately seen as a step too far politically and the Diploma was characterised by some as a watered-down alternative

Key features

Offered in 14 lines of learning

Offered hands on practical experience with classroom teaching with schools, colleges and employers all contributed to different parts of the qualification

Each Diploma had three major areas of study

  • Principal learning – focused on the main subject
  • Generic learning – common and including functional skills in English, Maths and ICT. Also a project and at least 10 days work experience
  • Additional and specialist learning – A top up that included GCSEs, AS etc

Available in three levels:

  • Foundation – Equivalent to five GCSEs grade D to G
  • Higher Diploma – Equivalent to seven GCSEs at Grades A to C
  • Advanced Diploma – equivalent to three and a half A levels

Where did it all go wrong

The Diploma did have its fans amongst employers and teachers and some universities. However as projected, take up was low and success rates even lower with around just 10k awards in its final year. An announced closure of the diploma aggregation service in 2013 was the final nail with exam boards jumping ship in 2012.

As for why some will cite suffering from and over complex design and bureaucracy. From the outset there were concerns over attainment, given hurdles to be jumped; a complicated administration system; and take up, despite positive support from some employers and teachers.

However, for other the Tomlinson proposal was ‘the solution’ that got away. Crucially it was a solution that removed the A level as an option that would have forced parents and schools to make decisions away from the default option and perhaps to create new and more varied stories about what success looks like.

Forewarned and forearmed?

For the T level points to reflect on include: A level competition, work experience requirement (The Diploma was 10 days, not three months!) and a possible wariness from those that experienced the former. Forewarned on these challenges offer the opportunity of being forearmed. Also in its favor university tuition fees and concerns over student dept that have arisen since the Diploma’s demise mean that alternative routes to careers will repay more thinking about.  Key will be creating success stories of the early pioneers providing the basis for pathways that others will be eager to follow.

Your views?

How close are the parallels? What are the main challenges that might be carried over? How might these be overcome for T levels?


T levels consultation – Work placements and other ingredients in recipe for success

We finally wrapped up our consultation response last week and whilst we remain clear on the need for change and agree with many of the ingredients, we still see a need for greater clarity on the ‘recipe’ and foundation for success

In a roundup of sector thinking here the CBI had this to say on the recipe:

“T-levels have the potential to be revolutionary, opening up new routes to skilled work, but they can’t be rushed or driven by Whitehall targets. Learning the lessons of the apprenticeship levy will help – this must be a partnership

The government needs to work with business on curriculum design and work placements, involving a wider range of businesses in their plans”

The CBI then had this to say on some of the key ingredients for success

“Key priorities for firms are delivering sufficient high-quality work placements, ensuring that there is flexible support for all learners to progress onto level three and ensuring a universal offer on provision in all parts of the country”

The requirement for sufficient high- quality work placements was echoed through the responses of other key industry bodies, something that we agree on whilst also noting high level of challenge in making this happen.

Building on this Altain also emphasised the need to learn the lessons of 14 to 19 Diplomas, a point echoed by the Edge Foundation in a separate response here.

Finally, Altain’s view was that much will also depend on promotion and how the narrative for T level is developed. That the proposed £9m investment  in the ‘Careers strategy’ announced in December here, is less than one 50th of the £500m investment promised for T levels introduction, tells you there is someway to go to get buy in to the full mix of ingredients required to get the job done.

Your views?

Did you contribute to the consultation? What did you see as the key ingredients for success? What still needs to be done?