Gavin Williamson, Education Secretary

Only qualifications that are high-quality, lead to further study or a job will attract government funding 

Reforms will make it easier for young people and adults to identify the course that is right for them after GCSEs, this forms part of the government’s skills revolution so students and employers get the skills they need for the jobs of tomorrow.

Young people and adults will have clearer qualification and training routes, as part of a shakeup of the post-16 system to remove low-quality qualifications that lack job prospects.

The new system will create two clearly defined paths for people who have completed GCSEs or similar courses: academic, meaning qualifications that primarily lead to further study, and technical, those qualifications that primarily lead to skilled employment. This will mean everyone can see more easily how their studies support their future training or job aspirations.

Apprenticeships, A levels and new T Levels will become the main progression options after GCSEs.

There will continue to be other qualifications on offer, for example in creative and performing arts, but the changes will reduce the number of poor-quality courses or duplication across the system. Qualifications will need to prove they give employers the skills they need or lead to good Higher Education courses, and demonstrate why there is a real need for them to be funded. The reforms come after consultation with the education sector, students and parents and will be phased in from 2023.

Under the new system, employers will also play a key role in helping to design more technical qualifications, so they deliver the skilled workforce businesses and the economy need to build back better from the pandemic.

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said:

“As we recover from the pandemic, there can be no room in our education system for second rate qualifications.

“Great qualifications are essential to helping everyone - no matter their age or background - to get good jobs and realise their ambitions.

“These reforms will simplify and streamline the current system, ensuring that whatever qualification a young person or an adult chooses they can be confident that it will be high-quality and will lead to good outcomes.”

Level 3 qualifications include A levels, T Levels and other options such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals. They are traditionally taken by young people after GCSEs, but also by many adults who wish to upskill or retrain.

There are currently over 4,000 qualifications at level 3 approved for government funding, with multiple qualifications in the same subject areas available - many of which are poor quality and offer little value to students or employers.

This includes over 200 engineering qualifications, over 200 qualifications in building and construction, and 15 plumbing qualifications, ranging from courses that are 170 learning hours to more than 1,800. In comparison, countries with high-performing technical education systems such as Germany and Switzerland offer fewer than 500 technical qualifications in total.

A recent survey also highlighted that employers were unable to fill a quarter of all vacant positions because they could not find people with the right skills.

It also showed that over a quarter of young people were leaving further education poorly prepared for the workplace, further underlining the need for qualifications to be high-quality and provide the skills that employers say they need.

Sector Reaction

tom bewick 100x100Tom Bewick, Chief Executive, Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) said:

“Despite all the consultation responses that the Department for Education received, it is disappointing to see that government continues to focus on the number of regulated qualifications, instead of supporting course diversity and real careers choices for young people post-16.

“The Federation has always supported the need for a housekeeping exercise and to remove qualifications at L3 that are obsolete or no longer certificate.

“But the notion in a British economy, with over 75,000 different job roles currently available, that the number of qualifications made available can be reduced to a mere handful is fanciful. If policymakers listened to parents, learners and college community leaders, as much as to employers, they would know that.

“The outcome of this particular review is taking the country in the wrong direction. It will not help level up across the regions of England and it will result in less opportunities for disadvantaged learners in future.”

“Moreover, the 1944 Education Act tried to track young people into three clearly defined routes, albeit at 11 years old: of grammar, technical and secondary modern schools – equivalent to today’s idea of making 16 year olds take only A-Levels, T-Levels and Apprenticeships from 2024.

“We know the tripartite post-war education experiment failed and this latest approach from the government, albeit an approach to tracking learners at 16 years old, has the potential to fail as well. 

“As the distinguished, former, secretary of state for education, Lord Baker, said recently: what the government is proposing here smacks of a form of ‘educational apartheid.’”

“Frankly, learners deserve better.”

david hughes 100 x100David Hughes, Chief Executive, Association of Colleges said:

“If the government really wants to level up, it needs to slow down this major reform and recognise the risks to thousands of young people. We are big supporters of T levels because they have the potential to improve the reputation and standing of technical education if they are implemented properly, alongside other qualifications. Colleges want to deliver them and employers are beginning to understand them and warm to them. Working with colleges, this reform would be a success so it is difficult to see why the Department for Education is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut. 

"We don’t need a strong-armed approach to force change, that change will happen. This approach risks leaving thousands of disadvantaged students with limited or no routes to progress into work or continuing education when they need them most. 

"We urge DfE to take a moment, work with the college sector, and create a new roll out plan that ensures T Levels are a success, whilst not inadvertently disadvantaging thousands of already disadvantaged students with their quest for speed. Doing that will ensure that all students in all parts of the country are able to find the right course for them and their aspirations. Collaboration not confrontation, working with rather than doing to.”

Jo Grady 100x100UCU general secretary Jo Grady said:

‘The government talks about levelling up. But scrapping BTECs would shut down a key entry route into higher education for those that don’t take A levels. This will be disastrous for widening participation, as Black and Asian students are more likely to use BTECs to get into university, as are students from working class backgrounds. 

‘Bringing in T levels on such a short timescale will create huge pressure on staff and damage students currently taking BTECs and other vocational qualifications. And there is no evidence it will improve outcomes. College staff know best how to meet the needs of their students, so ministers need to invest in them instead of creating false and unhelpful divides between academic and technical qualifications and dictating to the sector.’ 

Jennifer Coupland 100x100Jennifer Coupland, chief executive at the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education said:

“Qualifications at level 3 play an important role for people at the start of their careers and also those looking to build new skills.

“The impacts of the pandemic made it more important than ever that we offer high-quality training to address skills gaps.

“This review will help us to do even more to help people gain the knowledge and skills they need for prosperous and successful careers in their chosen industry.”

kirstie donnelly 100x100Kirstie Donnelly MBE, CEO – City & Guilds Group said:

“Whilst we fully support the need for a review of Level three qualifications to ensure they all lead to further study or a job, we are disappointed that the Government does not seem to have genuinely listened to the evidence provided by employers and experts within the Further Education sector in their consultation. 

 “The proposed narrowing of choice to T levels, A Levels or an apprenticeship post GCSE is simply not broad enough. Employers in many sectors have told us that they need a broader range of options available to allow them to access workers with industry specific skills. We also need to ensure that there are options available for students with different needs and abilities, for example we must make sure there are part time options available for those that cannot commit to full time study. We would like to understand what evidence the Government has used to conclude that some qualifications that are currently well regarded by employers and educators are ‘low quality’ and should no longer be funded. 

“We hope Government will not throw the baby out with the bathwater and take a second more nuanced look at the qualifications that are genuinely needed to help learners to progress and businesses to access the skilled workforces they need. We would like to see greater consideration given to including options based on combining a carefully selected set of alternative high-quality, in demand Technical and Academic qualifications, which would provide much needed flexibility and increase of choice at Level three.

“We also urge Government not to move too hastily and take a phased approach to making such radical changes to the Post 16 education system, testing that new options work before taking away the alternatives.”

Candace Miller, SFJ Awards, Managing Director said:

“As a specialist Awarding Organisation our qualifications are highly valued by employers and are very effective in supporting individuals of all ages to enter into and progress within rewarding careers within the protective services sectors.

“Understanding the importance and benefits of post-16 learning and development that enables individuals to follow their chosen path into the future, we fully support continuous improvement within the nationally funded vocational education and training provision. Nevertheless, others have voiced well-rehearsed arguments as to the issues such an approach can engender, however well intentioned. 

“Subsequently, we sincerely hope the narrowing of pathways post-GCSE that these reforms will create does not hinder there being real choice, flexibility, and agility within the qualifications sector. Society and learners must be able to continue to develop and gain recognition for the skills we will need into the future.”

Ruth Ginever, chief of industrialisation, Rolls-Royce Civil Aerospace Division, said:

“I take the proposed review of level 3 qualifications as a positive step. The current proliferation of different qualifications and lack of standardised content is confusing to both employers, seeking to recruit and to young people, and their parents, looking to make decisions on qualifications to study.

“The lack of clear routes through the different qualification levels and how they link to career paths is not supporting developing a diverse, future ready, technically skilled workforce. Particularly for employers, the lack of standardisation is disruptive and leads to extra costs being incurred in bringing an apprentice into a business, as often funding for extra academic support for learners has to be found to cover gaps emanating from non-standard level 3 qualifications.”

Mark McClennon, global chief information officer (CIO), Burberry, said:

“Level 3 qualifications are an important gateway for people from all backgrounds. I welcome this review and the plans now being shared through this consultation response to move to a more streamlined system that ensures high-quality training and reflects employers’ skills needs.”

Lucy Wiltshire, sector lead commercial, Willmott Dixon Interiors, said:

“Level 3 qualifications are extremely important to help ensure everyone has clearly defined and high-quality training and career choices after their GCSEs. Willmott Dixon has been keen to pay a lead role in supporting and shaping these for the construction sector through employer engagement. We support government plans to improve how the wider system works and help students and employers make the right choices.”

Bill Watkin100x100Bill Watkin, Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association said:

“The proposals set out today have the potential to be hugely damaging to the prospects and life chances of young people in England. It is clear that the government intends to sweep away the vast majority of applied general qualifications like BTECs and students will only have the option to study A levels or T levels from the age of 16. But for many young people, studying a BTEC qualification will be a much more effective route to higher education or skilled employment.

"Closing down this route means that thousands of students will be left without a viable pathway after they have finished their GCSEs – that’s bad for young people, bad for social mobility and bad for the economy. We’ll continue to work with the 10 education bodies in the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign to encourage the government to rethink these simplistic and regressive proposals.”

The ministerial foreword states that: “T Levels and A levels should be the programmes of choice for 16 to 19 year olds taking level 3 qualifications”. It is proposed that funding will start to be removed for other qualifications “that do not have a place in the new 16 to 19 landscape” from September 2023 (for technical qualifications) and September 2024 (for academic qualifications).

The most recent data for participation in education, training and employment in England (end of 2019) shows that 864,304 16 to 18 year olds are studying at Level 3. The majority (55%) are studying A levels only, 19% are studying applied general qualifications (in some cases alongside A levels) and 4% are studying technical qualifications.

Because of recent changes to Department for Education performance tables, 22% of students are categorised as studying an ‘Other Level 3’ course. The Sixth Form Colleges Association conservatively estimate that at least half of the students in this group are studying older-style applied general qualifications, which is why they feature in this category.

So in total, the Sixth Form Colleges Association estimate that at least 30% of 16 to 18 year olds studying a Level 3 qualification in England are pursuing an applied general qualification – 259,291 young people. 

As part of the work to boost access to high-quality level 3 qualifications, the government has already taken action to:

  • remove funding for more than 160 duplicate qualifications from August 2020, ensuring that students take the newer, more rigorous versions
  • remove funding from August 2021 for more than 2,200 qualifications which are not being taken by anyone each year.
  • stop any new qualification at level 3 and below from getting approval for funding from 2020, to avoid adding to the already confusing and complicated system of qualifications already available at these levels.

Since April, adults without a full qualification at Level 3 have also been able to access almost 400 free courses, ranging from engineering to healthcare to conservation, to help them gain in-demand skills and open up job opportunities. 

The new streamlined system announced today forms part of the government’s reforms to post-16 education and training as set out in the Skills for Jobs White Paper, which will ensure everyone no matter where they live can gain the skills they need to progress and secure a great career.

The new system will be phased in between 2023 and 2025 and will introduce changes including:

  • Simplifying choices for young people by removing government funding for qualifications that overlap with A levels and T Levels, while offering funding for high-quality alternatives to A levels, that support students to progress onto specialist Higher Education courses, such as performing arts.
  • Ensuring only qualifications that meet a high-quality bar and help students progress into work or further study are approved for funding
  • Putting employers at the heart of designing and developing all level 3 technical qualifications - this is already happening with apprenticeships, T Levels and new Higher Technical Qualifications, but the government is going further so that individuals and employers can be sure they are gaining the skills they need to thrive
  • Making more qualifications available to adults including new T Levels so more people can upskill or retrain

A major review of qualifications at Level 3 and below, including Applied General Qualifications, Tech Levels and Technical Certificates, but excluding A levels, T Levels and GCSEs was launched on 19 March 2019.

The first part of this two-stage consultation process ran for 12 weeks. It asked for views on:

  • only providing public funding for qualifications that meet key criteria on quality, purpose, necessity and progression
  • not providing public funding for qualifications for 16 to 19-year-olds that overlap with T Levels or A levels

The DfE published its response to the first stage consultation and launched the second stage consultation in March 2019 inviting views on the detailed proposals.

The response to that consultation is published today.


Review of post-16 qualifications at level 3: second stage

This consultation closed at 

This consultation is the second stage of the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below in England. It focuses on level 3 qualifications and seeks views on our proposals for the groups of qualifications that would continue to be funded alongside A levels and T Levels.

The review’s aim was:

  • clearer qualifications choices for young people and adults
  • to ensure that every qualification approved for public funding has a distinct purpose, is high quality and supports progression to positive outcomes for students

Alongside this consultation, you can also read:

Published 23 October 2020
Last updated 14 January 2021 - hide all updates

  1. Consultation closing date extended to 31 January 2021.

  2. Added link to the first stage consultation response and the post-16 study at level 2 and below call for evidence.

  3. First published.


How to boost study at level 2 and below so more students progress into jobs or further study 

10th Nov 2020:call for evidence seeking views on how to ensure post-16 qualifications at level 2 and below – excluding GCSEs – can support more people to progress into further study or employment, has been launched (10 November) by Apprenticeships and Skills Minister Gillian Keegan.

New figures reveal that many students who leave education with a level 2 qualification do not progress onto further study and can find it harder to get a job

This action builds on the work already underway to transform technical and vocational education, boost productivity and support the economy to recover after the pandemic

Qualifications at level 2 (GCSE equivalent) and below can be the springboard that supports large numbers of young people and adults to access higher levels of study, unlock employment opportunities, re-engage in education and secure English, maths and digital skills.

However, new analysis published by the Department for Education has revealed that 60% of 16 year olds who study a classroom based level 2 course do not move on to study at level 3 (A Level or T Level equivalent) the following year.

It also highlights that 37% of students who leave education with a level 2 qualification find it harder to get a job, compared to 14% of students who leave with a level 3 qualification.

Making sure everyone can access high quality qualifications that give them the skills they need to secure a good job and that provide employers with the skilled workforce they and the economy need to build back better from coronavirus, is priority for the government.

The call for evidence builds on the action already underway to overhaul the post-16 landscape so all students, no matter where they live and whatever qualification they choose, they know it will set them on the path to success. 

Gillian Keegan, Apprenticeships and Skills Minister said:

“We are overhauling the post-16 system to make sure it delivers for everyone. We are already taking action to make sure qualifications at level 3 are fit for purpose, but for too long courses at level 2 and below have been overlooked and undervalued, so we want to fix that. 

“We want all students to be confident that whatever option they choose will be high quality, valued by employers and will lead to further study or a great job. I encourage everyone from students to employers of all sizes to share their views so we can transform further education in this country.”

In October the government set out detailed measures aimed at making sure that whatever course a student takes at level 3 and below they can be confident it will be fit for purpose and lead to good outcomes. This includes removing funding from qualifications that overlap with T Levels and A levels, and only funding qualifications that are high quality and lead to good outcomes for students.

Work is already underway to overhaul technical and vocational education in this country, including the roll out of new T Levels, working with employers to create more high quality apprenticeship opportunities, establishing a system of higher technical education and a network of Institutes of Technology, backed by up to £290 million.

The government will shortly publish its ambitious FE White Paper which will set out plans to build on and strengthen the excellent work that is already happening across the country to unlock potential and level up skills and boosts opportunities for more people.

Qualifications at level 2 and below include those giving a broad introduction to a vocational area; specific skills to access specific employment; or transferrable skills.

The call for evidence is aimed at anyone with an interest in post-16 level 2 and below education including providers, employers and professional representative bodies. The call for evidence will run until 31 January 2021.

Classroom-based study refers to all provision that is not apprenticeships, traineeships or other work-based study. Training could be delivered in a classroom-based setting through a mixture of activities e.g. in the classroom, workshops, simulated working environments and if appropriate online or in supervised working environments. Where qualifications are included in apprenticeships and traineeships, they are in scope of the review.

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