A deep dive into Vocational and Technical Qualifications: Part one

We take a deep dive into the big changes happening in the Vocational and Technical Qualification space, and look at how education organisations can help prepare learners and educators for those changes.

Vocational and Technical Qualifications (VTQs) have been an established part of the educational landscape for many years. However, since 2022’s education reforms, there have been some big changes. In this two-part series, we take a look at the high level of change happening in this space and explore how the education industry can help prepare learners and educators for those changes. Read part two here.

The current state of play

Current VTQ routes

The government’s intention is that T-Levels will be one of the main qualification routes post-GCSEs, alongside apprenticeships, A-Levels, and some other non-technical vocational qualifications.

The terminology and types of qualification:

  • T-Level qualifications – Technical qualifications as an alternative to A-Levels, focusing on getting students ready for work and progression to further education. The courses include a substantial industry placement. A new suite of T-Levels is being rolled out from 2020-23 (more on that below).
  • Technical Awards – Awards such as BTEC Tech Awards and Cambridge Nationals. They are aimed at 14–16-year-olds and are taken in school alongside GCSEs or other general qualifications.
  • Technical Certificates – Level 2 qualifications for post-16, generally taken while still in education.
  • Occupational Qualifications – Qualifications for learners in work. Apprenticeships and old NVQs fall into this category.

Qualification reform

Changes are afoot in the vocational qualification space at Level 3 ( post-16) and at Level 2 and below (mainly 14-16 year-olds) with the process of removing funding from 800 Level 3 qualifications being due for completion in 2024.

Quality and approval reform

In January 2023, the DfE outlined changes to the approvals process for Level 3 qualifications. This includes the timeline that all Awarding Organisations must comply with. As part of the reformed process, the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education (IfATE) is requiring qualification providers to prove employer engagement and demand.

In October 2022, the DfE published its response to the consultation on the technical education landscape at Level 2 and below. Changes include:

What’s in What’s out
Flexibility around a 2-year study programme at entry levelsThe introduction of reformed qualifications will be delayed to 2025 (instead of 2024)
Funding of entry-level vocational taster qualificationsThe number of funded VTQs is being further streamlined
Grouping of qualifications into clear and distinct categories

Pre-employment traineeship programme scrapped 

After ten years of low uptake, the pre-employment traineeship programme has been scrapped, and provision is to be wrapped back into mainstream study programmes.

Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022

The Skills and Post-16 Education Act forms part of the government’s levelling-up agenda. The DfE aims to “make it easier for people to train to get the skills they need to secure well-paid jobs in industries with skills gaps, such as health and social care, engineering, digital, clean energy and manufacturing”.

The main changes to further education are:

  • Colleges will be required to create ‘skills plans’ which reflect the industry needs of their local areas. The hope is that this will make it easier for people to train in a relevant field and find work which uses their skills without having to leave their hometowns. 
  • There will be new sanctions for colleges which are failing to adequately serve their communities and provide good outcomes for students.
  • The government wishes to prioritise the development of ‘green skills’ to help more people find jobs in this field to support the growth of our ‘green economy’.
  • There will be greater flexibility in the use of student loans; from 2025 students can access a loan for higher education which they can use at any point in their lives.
  • The government aims to increase awareness of technical education opportunities, by ensuring that students meet with providers and consider these options alongside the traditional university route.

Eight ‘trailblazer’ regions have already been given funding to establish skills plans. The feedback from employers cites familiar problems, however; the skills system is too complex and the technical course content lags behind industry advancement. One of the most common recommendations from employers was that some form of modularisation is needed in the skills system since taking on full qualifications can often be too costly for them. They would also like to see greater flexibility in courses, as well as improved career advice for students. 

 ‘General awareness of the recently-introduced T-Level qualifications is low, with 65% of businesses either not at all aware or only slightly aware of them.’

Which Awarding Organisations deliver T-Levels?

The first teaching for T-Levels started in September 2020 in a limited number of subjects. The rollout is due to be completed in September 2024 covering the full list of subjects, a delay from the previously announced deadline of September 2023.

Only one Awarding Organisation (AO) is contracted to offer each qualification. T-Levels take longer to deliver than most other Level 3 technical qualifications, despite additional funding being available. Schools and colleges may initially find it challenging in fitting T-Levels into their timetables and teaching resources.

According to the Confederation of British Industry’s latest education and skills survey, general awareness of the recently-introduced T-Level qualifications is low, with 65% of businesses either not at all aware or only slightly aware of them. Given that industry placements, engagement and understanding from employers are key to the success of T-Levels, this could be a major headache for schools and colleges wishing to run them.

Other vocational ‘applied general’ qualifications

BTECs (Pearson) and Cambridge Nationals & Technicals have dominated this space for those in education. In the workplace, City & Guilds have led the occupational qualifications market, with Pearson also being a major player. NVQs and apprenticeships also fall into the occupational qualifications sector. Sector-specific providers also operate in these markets such as NCFE.

The government’s intention over recent years has been to weed out duplication and so-called ‘low quality’ qualifications or those with low-to-no uptake. In 2016, the government started the process of removing funding from such qualifications with a vision to complete this process in 2024, with around 800 Level 3 qualifications no longer being funded. Read part two of this blog for trends in uptake, learner demographics and industry news.

Further reading and sources