Gavin Williamson’s ‘second-rate’ comments damage everyone

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’. 

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Top 5 skills employers look for in 2021

Here at TQUK, we understand that applying for jobs can be difficult. Industries are becoming more competitive and understanding the specific skills that are needed to get into a chosen sector can be complicated. According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of young people aged 18 – 24 years who were not in education, employment or training from January to March 2021 was at a record low of 679,000. With a record low that has been relatively flat since 2017, how do we continue to decrease the number of young people who are unemployed?

As an Ofqual regulated Awarding Organisation, we develop qualifications that will support you in gaining the knowledge and skills that you need to power forward in your career. In honour of World Youth Skills day, we want to help young people understand what employers look for when hiring. 

World Youth Skills day aims to celebrate the resilience and creativity of young people who have experienced challenging times due to COVID-19. During 2020, global youth employment fell by 8.7% due to the pandemic.

That’s why we’ve compiled a list of the top five skills that employers are looking for in 2021. Not only will you gain a better understanding of what employers are seeking, but you’ll be able to see which TQUK qualifications will support you in building these skills.

Sit back, relax and be prepared to update your CV because we’ve got you covered.

Communication and Interpersonal Skills

Communication in the work place is key. Whether you’re communicating with your manager and colleagues or customers, you need to know how to clearly and concisely communicate with the people around you. Having the ability to build rapport, persuade and negotiate isn’t specific to one certain industry. You can build good communication skills by working in hospitality or hairdressing, or even from a presentation you did back in a Year 9 English lesson. 

The TQUK Level 2 Certificate in Principles of Business Administration (RQF) qualification includes units that focus on principles of developing working relationships with colleagues and principles of communication in a business environment.


Even if you aren’t applying for a role that’s specifically in management, it’s important to have this skill as it shows an employer that if the time comes, you’ll be ready to take the lead. A growing, successful team is underpinned by individuals who have the ability to motivate and lead others to achieve their goals. 

But leadership isn’t only about managing others. 

Self-management is important as it allows you to prioritise work, manage your time and control your actions, feelings and thoughts in a productive manner. Employers favour this skill as it showcases that regardless of the situation, you can show resilience and persistence in getting the job done. 

We offer a range of Leading and Management qualifications, such as TQUK Level 2 Certificate in Principles of Team Leading (RQF). The qualification is available through The Skills Network, meaning that it’s fully funded and available online for learners to start when and wherever they want.

Computer and Social Media Skills

Social media is a big part of society. When it’s not being used for posting witty videos to Tik Tok and Twitter, businesses are using social media for many different reasons. From connecting with consumers and solving customer service queries to keep up with their competitors, businesses are advancing using social media. 

World Skills UK reported in a study that 92% of businesses say that having a basic level of digital skills is important for employees. While social media may not be a big part of the role that you’re applying for, employers want individuals who can digitally help the business grow and reach the next level of success.

The TQUK Level 2 Certificate in Principles of Business Administration (RQF) contains the following units to help you with your social media skills:

  • Exploring social media
  • Understanding the safe use of online and social media platforms
  • Principles of digital marketing

Again, this is available to study through The Skills Network, fully remote and funded.


The rise of remote working has seen many companies working from different locations. While your manager may be at home with their cat, your colleague may be in a coffee shop with a fresh cappuccino – COVID- 19 has introduced big changes to how companies work. Despite the different locations, it’s important that you can make the conscious effort to work as a team and produce projects that each team member has contributed towards. 

The TQUK Level 4 Diploma in Management and Leadership (RQF) provides units covering the principles of building respectful and productive working relationships in organisations.


Building up resilience in the work place is important. How well you deal with setbacks shows employers your true potentialEmployers acknowledge that individuals may struggle but understand that it’s the ability to bounce back which is more important. It’s no secret that everyone makes mistakes, you just need the capability to address and rectify them in the workplace without it affecting your work or other team members. 

The TQUK Level 3 Award in Developing Emotional Awareness and Resilience in the Workplace (RQF) helps individuals develop skills and strategies to make the workplace environment emotionally safe for themselves and others.

If you’re a centre of TQUK, why not branch out and start to offer some of these qualifications to your local communities?

For more information on the qualifications we offer, visit our website or give us a call to chat with one of our customer service team members, who will be happy to help – 03333 583 3344.

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We’re here for you during these turbulent times

Following the Prime Minister’s address on Saturday, I wanted to drop you a line to let you know how we’ll continue to support you during this potentially turbulent period.

Our service to you is our top priority. This is a difficult and uncertain time, but we’ve got your back every step of the way. If you have any questions or concerns, just get in touch and we’ll steer you in the right direction as best we can.

The industry is responding rapidly and so are we. We’re attending conferences and sector forums to understand the latest developments and are working with our regulators for changes that will help you and your learners keep moving forwards. We’ll pass all key information through to you as and when we have it.

Since the first lockdown ended, we’ve been providing adaptations to our regulated qualifications in line with Ofqual’s Extraordinary Regulatory Framework. We’re on the seventh version at the moment and will continue to update it as necessary and send to you via email.

If you’re concerned about certificate delivery, we’re still issuing e-certificates as standard, so no certs will be delayed by offices being shut. You can find out more about e-certs on our blog or by watching the recording of a webinar we gave in September.

Finally, we’ve updated our Coronavirus FAQ page to ensure it features the most current information we have. You can find the page here.

We’re here for you whatever you need us for, and together we’ll overcome whatever challenges the pandemic throws at us.

King regards,
Andrew Walker
Managing Director – Training Qualifications UK

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