Last week I was a guest on the Skills World Live podcast with Tom Bewick, Stewart Segal of Youth Employment UK and Catherine Winter from The London Institute of Banking and Finance.  

We were there to talk about the consultation outcomes of the post-16 review, which had been published the day before, but were side-lined by the frankly astonishing declaration by Education Secretary Gavin Williamson that he considered all qualifications other than T levels to be ‘second-rate’. 

OK, so the words might not have been quite so explicit, but that phrase was used. I hadn’t heard this ahead of the interview with Tom and you can see the look on my face when I start to formulate a response to Tom asking what I think about it. Catherine puts it eloquently when she says that she has to ‘think carefully how to respond’.  

You can hear in our voices how incredulous we are. 

First-rate work 

I’ve been thinking about the statement ever since.  

I wonder how much experience Mr Williamson has in developing qualifications, whether he has ever crafted – and it is a craft – a qualification purpose after conducting extensive sector research and engaging with stakeholders, subject experts and employers.  

I wonder how many 18-stage qualification development processes he has seen through from beginning to end, with the purpose of that qualification being the constant in the centre of a cacophony of drafting, reviewing and redrafting of a specification.  

I wonder how many times he’s agonised over the order of LOs, the command verbs used in ACs, the flow of learning through a qualification’s units and the guidance and assessment requirements that steer learners and teachers through their courses. 

Our team does it every day. They also manage a constant cycle of qualification reviews, feedback from stakeholders and analysis of the registration statistics and assessment outcomes, constantly looking for ways to ensure our qualifications are the best they can be: first-rate, if you will.  

And they also reach out to industry and subject experts to check, check again and triple check that the outcomes we’re providing to learners are relevant and valid, that the qualification is worth the paper it’s printed on. 

That’s a lot of first-rate work for ‘second-rate’ qualifications. 

The message to learners 

I also wonder what Ofqual makes of his comments.  

They work tirelessly every day to regulate and monitor the activities of Awarding Organisations like ours. Their work ensures that we have the very best processes and procedures to develop, deliver and award meaningful, valid, comparable and relevant qualifications into a market where we are driven to produce the very best quality.  

Through its regulatory tools and documents, Ofqual sets out clearly what’s expected of its regulated AOs and holds us to account for our performance against these expectations, as we do ourselves.  

It’s hard not to interpret some implicit criticism of Ofqual’s oversight of our activities in these comments. 

But more important than all that, more important than the feelings of everyone who works so hard to deliver BTECs, Applied Generals and a host of other vocational provision to our young people, is what message is being sent to young learners.  

A qualification isn’t a specification. It isn’t a document that lists content, it isn’t even the certificate. It’s a status that’s achieved by an individual after a period of learning and assessment of competence. 

When you become qualified, you become part of a group that share that status. You can’t call a qualification ‘second-rate’ without implying that all those who have it are falling short. Surely this isn’t the message our Secretary for Education meant to give? And yet, he did.

A long-fought battle 

This is a battle we’ve been fighting in a different field for years.  

Remember the kid who got put on an apprenticeship? The one dismissed as ‘the naughty one’, or the one who couldn’t sit exams? The snobbish, NIMBY-esque view of the less ‘academic’ routes through education is nothing new.  

As a member of the EPAO community, we’re in the middle of trying to turn around a cruise liner of opinion about the value of apprenticeships. We’re constantly working to highlight the value of these comprehensive, work-based programmes and promote them as viable alternatives to traditional A Levels and university degrees. 

Creating divides with inflammatory comments is dangerous. It boxes young people into categories which limit their opportunities and hamper their own belief. 

Countless research studies have shown that socio-economically disadvantaged young people are disproportionately represented in higher education. How many of those have been told, age 16, that the apprenticeship route might be ‘more suitable for their learning style’? How many have been discouraged or disheartened by the stigma and not achieved their potential as a result. 

And how many will read Mr Williamson’s comments and again feel disparaged?  

Reform that makes the right difference 

I should be clear: we are not against reform.  

We are not protesting T levels; in fact, we welcome the drive to put technical and vocational education on a level footing with more traditional routes and believe that many, many young people will benefit from taking these robust qualifications.  

But is reform really reform if it doesn’t help those who need it most?  

The Department’s own impact assessment shows that the new proposals may further disadvantage already disadvantaged groups. If the existing provision is already disadvantaging some, surely any reform should seek to narrow that gap, not adopt a ‘greatest good for the greatest number’ approach.  

The proposals also appear to have forgotten about the millions of adult learners who achieve a level 2 or level 3 qualification as part of their CPD or reskilling for a promotion or career change. These adults have studied hard, whilst also working and managing various other responsibilities, to achieve this so-called ‘second-rate’ qualification which has led to real, life-changing outcomes.  

I wonder how they feel hearing this proclamation. 

Comment with care 

We’ve all experienced sales pitches that work on the principle of disparagement: not ‘our product is better’, but ‘their product is worse’. Most of us don’t respond all that well to this kind of approach, but it’s exactly how Mr Williamson’s comments come off.  

After the fiasco of miscommunication from his department last year, failure of these flagship T Levels is not an option for Mr Williamson, and nor should it be. But his efforts should not come at the expense of other qualifications that have taken time and hard work to develop, deliver and learn. 

In future, I hope Mr Williamson considers the weight of his words more carefully because if he took some time to explore these qualifications in more depth, he’d see they’re anything but ‘second-rate’.