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The Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) recently issued a Post-16 Skills Plan which sets the scene for what will be a far-reaching reform of the skills system.

The Skills Plan takes the recommendations made by an Independent Panel on Technical Education (commissioned in November 2015 and headed by Lord Sainsbury) and runs with them. The intention set out in the Skills Plan is that all the proposals will be implemented unequivocally “where this is possible within current budget constraints”.

As there is no additional funding for the reforms to be implemented, the degree and pace of change to technical education will inevitably be dependent on the costs of implementing each aspect of the reforms.

It is important to bear in mind that the Post-16 Skills Plan is a plan: it is not immediate policy. We can expect more detail on how the plan will start to take effect and what kind of commitments to it are being made later in the year (perhaps after the Autumn statement).

It is also worth noting that there has been significant change within the Departments responsible for education and skills, given that not only has Nick Boles MP left his position at BIS but Skills has moved completely to the Department for Education (DfE).

Much has been made however, within the Skills Plan and surrounding discussion in Government, that there is broad support for reform and the recommendations of the Independent Panel across Parliament. There’s a sense of “enough’s enough” particularly in relation to what is viewed as an overly complex qualification system that does not have the structural linear simplicity of academic qualifications such as GCSEs and A-Levels. This has led to a recommendation to move to a system of 15 technical routes, each of which will cover a number of occupations.

The timescales for these reforms are one of the main aspects that is unknown, but it will take years (and more than one Parliament, regardless of whether an early election is called), to implement most of them. So, our main advice to our centres at this stage is to be aware of the planned changes but be assured that this set of reforms will not take place overnight.

Please get in touch to continue the conversation and let us know when we can support you.

So what’s included in the proposed reforms?

Academic or Technical education: a choice at 16

At 16, learners will chose to follow an academic or a Technical education (new qualifications, to be developed, and apprenticeships) initially for two years. The Technical system will be made up of 15 routes, with qualifications aligned to occupations within each route. (Note that this is not the same thing as current ‘Tech Levels’). These routes are listed in pages 34-35 of the Independent Report.

There is no specified route for Fitness, Leisure and/or Sport: the information we have received regarding this is that occupations within those areas should be presumed to fit under other route titles. This is an issue we will be working on to ensure that the Department for Education has the full opportunity to understand the importance of occupations in this area of the labour market, the benefits of maintaining high quality skills training in fitness, leisure and sport to public health and the value of these occupations in the economy.

Route Content

Each route will have a single, nationally recognised certificate, which is likely to be issued by the Institute for Apprenticeships (more on this Institute below). The certificates can be expected to show a route title but we don’t know if they will be aligned to specific levels. Each route will start either immediately in a work-based apprenticeship (some routes have already been aligned to this mode) or in college.

The Independent Panel report recommends that every college-based route should begin with a two-year programme and that this programme should “begin with a ‘common core’ which applies to all individuals studying that route and is aligned to apprenticeships.” It is as yet unclear whether the common core is intended to include occupation related common content as well as the English, maths and digital skills that each route will contain. This could be an excellent opportunity to develop really good, high quality contextualised maths, English and digital skills provision within the common core. It is, perhaps, more difficult to envisage inclusion of content that will be common across the varied occupations within each route. This may be more feasible for some routes than others.

Each route will contain occupational maps, containing a variety of occupations each with one qualification. Qualifications will be at Level 2 and above. Provision at the start of a route will be at Level 2 and 3, which will take leaners up to the end of their two-year programme either in college or on an apprenticeship.

Work placement

A key recommendation within the Independent Panel report is that a high quality work placement should be a required element of any college-based technical education programme. The Report places an estimated cost of £500 per placement for this, for which the Government “should make additional funding available.” Inevitably, this may be one aspect of the recommendations where the Department for Education will have to apply a compromise, not only due to the lack of funding available but also the difficulty that providers typically encounter in securing suitable work placements (which is over and above short ‘work experience’). The recommendation for work placements underscores the Government’s emphasis on closing a perceived gap between providers and employers; however it may continue to be very difficult to implement. Consideration will also need to be given to occupations in which the predominant form of employment is self-employment.  

Pre-entry to the routes

A “transition year” between education up to 16 and entering a route will be available to learners who are "not ready to access a technical education route at age 16". This transition year could include a traineeship.

Continuation of a route or switch to non-route options: the choice at 18

The planned reforms provide progression pathways which enable learners to move between the academic and technical routes in either direction, through ‘bridging provision’. This will enable leaners who have completed a technical route and who wish to continue their education to either continue along the technical route to acquire Level 4 and 5 technical qualifications or higher/degree apprenticeship or undertake bridging provision to move toward an undergraduate degree.

Learners who have completed an academic route will also be able to bridge to Level 4 and 5 qualifications and apprenticeships. We can expect to see further flexibility in accepted progression routes to education available at Levels 4 and 5, whilst at the same time qualifications available within the reformed Technical education offer is intended to be significantly reduced.

Adult provision

Although the emphasis in both reports is on 16-18 year olds, the reforms will affect provision of adult skills, including learner loans. The two-year college-based or apprenticeship modes intended for 16-18 year olds are unlikely to work well (or at all) for most adult learners and this is an issue which will require considerable attention in the next stage of developing these reforms. Therefore, we will be pushing to make sure that the occupational qualifications at Level 2 and Level 3 are available to adult learners, outside the provision designed for the two-year college or work-based study programmes, in a way that meets their needs.

The provision available to learners in the transition year (pre-entry to a route) will also be available to adults, which may be especially helpful for career changers if Level 1 qualifications are required to facilitate entry to a new career and are available within this transition space. We will be raising this as an issue to be taken account of so that Level 1 qualifications remain available for those learners and situations that require them.

Building the new system: the Institute for Apprenticeships working with employers

The Institute for Apprenticeships, due for launch in April 2017, will be given an extended remit, creating the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education. By April 2018 this body will have responsibility for the quality and coherence of both the technical education system and its strategy.
It is intended that whilst the Institute will be ultimately responsible for designing the content, standards and assessment contained within the routes, ‘employers’ are to be positioned to lead on this, within panels of professionals appropriate to the requirements of the route.

We are paying close attention to how this starts to unfold to ensure that due consideration is given to the voice and needs of small businesses and the self-employed, and that the expertise of assessment organisations isn’t overlooked. The description of the process for development of standards and assessment plans for the routes replicates the processes that is being used to develop the new apprenticeship standards (the “trailblazers”) so it will be vital for the Institute to ensure that problems that have arisen across all sectors during the development of these standards are not repeated.

Learner Loans

Once the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education is in operation it will be responsible for a register of approved technical education qualifications at Levels 4 and 5 as well as the qualifications within the routes at Level 2 and 3.

Only qualifications that appear on this register will be available for “public subsidy”, which includes learner loans. At this stage, we cannot know how many qualifications will be available on this register, although we do know that the intention is that there will be considerably less than is currently available for funding.

We will continue to make all appropriate representations to ensure that learners in our sector have the right range of qualifications available to them so that learners can benefit from choice and flexibility rather than be constrained into narrow or artificially generic qualifications.

Your choice of Awarding Organisations: marketplace model to licensing

For provision at Levels 2 and 3 the Independent Panel recommend that the current awarding organisation market model should be replaced by a licensing approach. The licensing arrangement has been interpreted by a number of commentators, in print and social media, as a system where there would be only one Awarding Organisation (or a consortium of AOs) for each route.

However, at YMCA Awards we believe that this is not the correct interpretation and that further clarification is required. The recommendation describes licensing qualifications, rather than routes or the certificates issued on completion of the first two years of a route (see page 11 of the Independent Report). The Skills Plan’s position on a marketplace model for awarding organisations is that this makes the qualification system overly complex (a view which gives it good reason to accept this recommendation), however the plan does not provide specific interpretation of the recommendation or arrangements for licensing.

You will have your own views on the advantages and disadvantages of having a choice of awarding organisations and may share our concerns that licensing will create monopolies that could stifle innovation and reduce the quality of customer service and external quality assurance you receive.
We place great value on the relationships we build with our customers and the work we jointly do to benefit and meet the interests of learners and the occupational sectors we are working in, through the quality and responsiveness of all of our services and resources. We understand that you could chose an alternative awarding organisation and appreciate – and work hard to – maintain your loyalty. We believe that there are a whole host of other disadvantages to moving entirely away from a marketplace model, including the risk of single points of failure, although we can understand the benefit of streamlining some aspects of what’s available in that marketplace.


The timescales set out in the Skills Plan are very ambitious and require further clarification in terms of how certain deadlines inter-relate. There are also issues such as the ongoing work in area reviews and devolution of adult skills funding which are likely to play a part in these timescales. More than anything, the skills education system will have to have the capacity to absorb all the changes intended by the Skills Plan whilst so much else is in flux and the Department of Education will have both the money and stakeholder/employer support to see it go ahead. Page 44 of the Skills Plan provides a visual timeline which is useful to look at if you want to better understand the intended timescales. Key dates include:

  • October 2017: qualification content developed for ‘pathfinder’ routes
  • April 2018: Institute for Apprenticeships responsible for technical education
  • October 2018: procurement begins for awarding organisations against approved content
  • February 2019: qualifications approved by the Institute for Apprenticeships for pathfinder routes
  • September 2019: first teaching of ‘pathfinder’ routes
  • September 2020: transition year in place for students not yet ready to progress to Level 2
  • September 2020 – 2022: phased first teaching of other routes

YMCA Awards works closely with sector stakeholders to interpret, implement and where necessary challenge policy developments.

If you have any concerns about anything you have read today please get in touch with us directly or join the debate on LinkedIn and Facebook.