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A deep dive into Vocational and Technical Qualifications: Part two

We take a look at ongoing innovation in the VTQ space, including concerns over proposed changes, learner demographics, and the impact on the education publishing industry.

In part one, we reported on the reform happening in the VTQ space, including how these changes will form part of the government’s levelling-up agenda and increase awareness of technical education opportunities. In Ofqual’s latest annual survey of Perceptions of General Qualifications (conducted in 2022), understanding and trust of Applied General qualifications remained high. Perceptions of these qualifications as good preparation for work and for further study, as well as for developing a broad range of skills also remained consistent.

There continues to be plenty of innovation in the vocational and technical space. Recently, the Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, outlined plans for a new technical Baccalaureate  for 16-year-olds in the region. Despite this update, concerns have been raised, including by this House of Commons Education Committee report (April 2023), that there is actually a risk of a reduction in choice for young learners.

Do proposed changes risk narrowing opportunities?

Since 2017, the number of certificates awarded for vocational qualifications has declined, predictably reaching a low point during the Covid-19 lockdown(s). In late 2022, there was an upturn in certification but the numbers are yet to rebound to the same level as in 2017. The Education Committee report highlights that there must be a longer timeline for evaluating the effectiveness of T levels in “preparing students for progression, meeting industry needs and promoting social mobility” before removing funding to Applied General Qualifications (AGQs). 

Within this trend, at Level 3, most sectors have seen a decline in the number of certificates awarded since 2017/18. Combining this with the withdrawal of applied vocational qualifications ahead of the potentially-disruptive T Level rollout could narrow opportunities rather than increase them, the Education Committee argues.

Line graph showing the number of certificates issued from Q4 2017 to Q3 2022 (in millions). Source: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/

The report raises concerns that “the speed and scope of the Department’s reforms risk constricting student choice, and narrowing opportunities for young people to progress”. 86% of those who responded to the DfE’s consultation disagreed with the proposal to remove funding for AGQs. 

Learner demographics 

The number of students starting an apprenticeship dropped from 447,000 to 300,000 between 2015 and 2020. Alongside this, there has been a shift in the demographic, which has resulted in young learners missing out. Students over 25 have become the majority group for higher apprenticeships (Level 4 and 5) whilst the number of under-25s starting apprenticeships has dropped by 40% since 2014.

Apprenticeships in lower-income areas have also decreased (from 26% in 2015 to 20% in 2020) and increased in more affluent areas (from 14% to 18% in these same years). Only 5% of learners starting a degree apprenticeship in 2020/21 were coming from lower-income areas. In light of this change, the Sutton Trust suggests that the government should stop levy funds from being used to train senior staff; they should be used instead to support young people. 

AOs seem to be moving towards providing greater support – both ‘free’ and paid-for. This may be a result of lower or more fragmented uptake of qualifications and the continuing squeeze on school and further education budgets. 

Publishing and resources

Awarding Organisations (AOs) have historically focused on supporting their qualifications with schemes of work and assessment materials, leaving the textbook, revision and delivery support to the traditional publishing businesses. However, AOs seem to be moving towards providing greater support – both ‘free’ and paid-for. This may be a result of lower or more fragmented uptake of qualifications and the continuing squeeze on school and further education budgets. 

Industry news

Currently, Pearson and City & Guilds remain the AOs with the highest number of certificates awarded for vocational qualifications:

Awarding organisationOct 2020 to Sep 2021Oct 2021 to Sep 2022Rank Oct 2020 to Sep 2021Rank Oct 2021 to Sep 2022
City & Guilds551,030556,47522
Table showing the number of certificates awarded for vocational qualifications and ranking by Awarding Organisation for 2020/21 and 2021/22. Source: https://explore-education-statistics.service.gov.uk/

In December 2022, AQA acquired TQ UK, with the express aim of strengthening its vocational provision. Cambridge made a significant foray into publishing for vocational qualifications in schools in 2022, with a range of resources for Cambridge Nationals at Level 1/2. 

Further reading and sources