COMING UP: Altain attending Westminster forum event, next steps for technical education – ‘T levels’

Altain will be attending the forthcoming Westminster Higher education forum event considering ‘T-Levels’ and other next steps for technical education on Monday 3rd of July. This conference will examine proposed reforms to technical education in England and implementation of the Post-16 Skills Plan.

It follows the commitment to implement the recommendations of Lord Sainsbury’s Independent Review of Technical Education including:

  • The introduction of T-levels and a framework of 15 routes for technical education from 2019;
  • Increasing the number of hours for students on technical routes to over 900 per year on average; and
  • An additional £500 million in funding each year for technical education from 2019-20.

Sessions will focus on key issues in the roll-out of the proposed T-levels and 15 routes into technical education – including the design of individual employer-led qualifications, how to ensure the content of each route is sufficiently demanding, and the impact of the possible move to a single awarding body per qualification. Further sessions will consider future involvement of schools and priorities for the proposed new Institutes of Technology in creating effective progression routes to higher level qualifications.

Delegates will assess the sustainability of technical education and the resourcing to support reforms, following the announcement of additional funding in the Spring Budget and considering Area Review findings.

The implications of technical education reforms on teacher supply and college leadership in the view of concerns over whether some colleges can adapt to a rapidly changing environment will also be discussed.

We hope to see you there.

University admissions and exams reform, two sides of the same coin?

The following is a transcript of a presentation that I gave at the recent Westminster Higher Education Forum on the possible impact of exams reform on admissions and implications for widening participation.


Good morning

I suspect that Michael Gove might actually be quite pleased with the ‘O level’ referencing in this cartoon. However I like its understatedness reminding us of the possible human dimensions to education refoms and in particular major exam reforms coming to a head this summer. Anyway, I’m the Managing Director of Altain Education and we are a strategic agency helping people from exams and assessment organisations with their customer and commercial stuff.  We do work with universities but again, typically ‘schoolside’

Our aim today is to explore with you, the possible impact of exams reforms, in relation to admissions and particularly in relation to widening participation.

Our approach is to:

  • Firstly, to explore the connection between exams and admissions
  • Second, the nature and possible significance of the reforms
  • Then, what might be done, in the short term
  • Finally, to wrap up with thoughts on the longer term

In the education committee’s review of the exams system, the most common complaint was of an exams dog wagging the education tail. The question here is whether exams reforms are perhaps unwittingly wagging the Social mobility tail too?

So – what about the connection between exams and admissions?

Exams and admissions; Two sides of the same coin?

There is perhaps no better illustration of the close connection between exams and admissions that the annual results day ritual.  In effect, ‘Two sides of the same coin. This then, extends to the chain of decisions and activities leading up to the results. Then beyond as we move into clearing and exam appeals.

Underlying this appears to be a narrative ‘blueprint’ for education success and arguably success in life – Work hard, get your qualifications, go to university, get a job!  A narrative with significant motive power, but possibly under pressure – a theme we will return to in a moment.

In principle, this is an equitable situation as the means of getting onto the pathway, ie largely via public exams, are open to all.

There are possible question-marks over equality of opportunities for attainment and progress.  Perhaps also a question mark over open accessibility of all university offers.

However these problems will be endemic in the system ‘as is’. Our interest here is the possibility that the reforms bring something new.

Exams reform: An equitable ‘fiasco’

These are major reforms and admissions and history tell us that the initial results period can be particularly challenging.

Some have suggested curriculum 2000 as a comparison, for example, which we’ve reflected in this two by two box so beloved of us consultants. AS changes were centre stage in 2000 as they are this time and then culminated in a reported grading ‘fiasco’, with young people missing out on university places and high level resignations.

Roll forward to the forthcoming exams and we might hope that lessons had been learned. However, if we take the example of AS and Maths in particular,  we should note that leading universities were against the changes, as their evidence was that availability of AS enabled some young people to discover Maths ability not apparent at GCSE. Perhaps more significant is the totality of changes –

  • AS decoupling, disadvantaging students that ‘discovered’ maths capability later in the education cycle
  • GCSE Maths, toughened up with a change from alpha to numeric with 9 an new top grade above the existing A* for example and a ‘good pass’ a grade 5 which equates to the top of a grade C and above
  • A levels have been tightened up
  • A return of Entrance exams/interviews for some universities

Individual assessments may be the same for all but for some there is a potential for a ‘compounding’ factor.

In addition to this, is the challenging scenario reportedly faced by some schools on funding and teacher recruitment, leading to a shortage of specialist teachers eg physics and maths, a narrowing of A level curricula, possibility of reduction of supporting resources such as textbooks.

Perhaps under-reported, is the possible knock-on impact of ‘bandwidth’ issues at KS 4/5 on KS3 student progression – labelled the ‘wasted years’ by Ofsted.

In summary, if you are projecting some distortion in relation to students from disadvantaged backgrounds that would seem reasonable.

So, what might be done?

What might be done?

Others have commented on possibilities for the admissions system and ‘outreach plans’

Specifically, on school side intervention, we observe three main strategies –

  • Going around the schools and directly targeting the student eg social media events
  • Adaption of admissions policies to mitigate uncertainty eg unconditional offers
  • Direct engagement with the schools eg Supporting attainment with tuition; or working with schools to judge ‘potential’ where exams results may not be representative

The ‘Sweet spot’ with most interventions most likely to be around ‘Attainment’

Schoolside, ‘What works?’

If you are minded to do more school- side, particularly in the area of attainment, it might be helpful to be aware of the ‘what works’ movement emphasising ‘evidence based’ policy and practice. This ranges from guidance on research based strategies, to driving attainment, through formative assessment, to assessment systems that might be helpful for local evaluation and experimenting with interventions.

So, more assessment, but very different in purpose and approach from high stakes exams.

With two options – leverage it, or be part of growing it.

Wrap up

Finally, to wrap up I wanted to return to the theme of there being an underlying narrative as a motive force (and one possibly on the wane) that drives young people toward university. In effect, a value proposition and value chain and quite a bit more. As this cartoon reminds us, this is a time in which this ‘value’ might be under question.

One of the possible side effects of the reforms is that bandwidth issues mean that we lose sight of the need to sustain the narrative and more particularly the need to refresh and perhaps re-architect offers and the system

In April, a new motive force will be unleashed, a £3 bn apprenticeship levy.

It would be shame if young people from disadvantaged background missed out on a lifechanging university experience instead because exam reform meant eyes were taken off the ball.

Thank you


NEWS: Altain to speak at the forthcoming Westminster Higher Education Forum event on securing University admissions targets in face of exams reforms.

Geoff Hurst, Managing Director, of Altain education will be presenting and contributing to a panel discussion on exams reform and university admissions targets as part of conference on next steps for widening participation policy and practice

A summary of the programme and other speakers are below with full details here.We hope to see you there.

With the Government having set two widening participation targets – doubling the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds from 14% to 28%, and to increase by 20% the numbers of students from BME backgrounds, both by 2020 – this seminar will be a timely opportunity to assess existing best practice, remaining practical challenges and next steps for policy in order achieve these goals.

The seminar also comes as HEFCE prepares to oversee the launch of a new Collaborative Outreach Program which will see consortia of universities and other groups leading efforts to realise the Government’s targets and with considerable change planned to post-16 vocational qualifications.

Delegates will discuss the impact of the reform of post-16 technical education and the opportunities presented by Degree Apprenticeships for widening participation, the distinct challenges for improving participation among students who are mature, BAME, disabled or from disadvantaged communities, and evidence of what works in outreach and how lessons might be drawn from this to inform policy and practice more widely.

The role of the admissions system in widening participation will also be discussed, including the proposal for UCAS applications to be ‘name-blind’ which is currently being trialled and consulted upon, as well the likely impact of new requirements for universities to report admissions data, the growing use of contextual data to inform offers and the merits of wider reform of the system such as moving to a Post-Qualification Application model.