Secret Lecturer: Are curriculum reforms really worth it?


I wonder if in 10 years’ time we’ll be looking at T-levels as a carbon copy of one of their late predecessors, GNVQs (general national vocational qualifications). 

Recent research by the Fischer Family Trust Education Datalab has looked at students who turned 16 between 2002-2009 and compared academic and career achievements of those who took GNVQs with those from an equivalent background who didn’t. Interestingly, it found the outcomes for both sets of students hardly differed. 

GNVQs, introduced in 1993 and phased out in 2007, was offered in two formats - intermediate, the equivalent of four A-C GCSEs, bumped up to the required five by students taking an additional straight GCSE, and advanced, the equivalent of two A-levels.


Decision to scrap GNVQs open to question

The researchers found that those who had not taken them had had a slight advantage when entering higher education at age 22, whereas those who had were slightly better placed in employment and income at age 29.

You have to ask if it worth all the effort in introducing, and then abandoning, GNVQs. Spending too much energy on the curriculum? Looking back, the decision to scrap them was taken without this quality of evidence.  

In June 1997, an article in the Independent said GNVQs had failed to match the status of A-levels and did not provide a genuine route to jobs for school-leavers. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA) described GNVQs as imperfect. But research some 20 years later proves how wrong these conclusions were and questions the justification for scrapping them. In terms of outcomes for pupils, they were pretty well equivalent. 


An obsession with league tables

Our focus on ‘reform, reform, reform’, driven by an obsession with league tables, just does not exist in France, Germany or the US. The QCA said on the BBC in 2005 that some schools had exploited current imperfections in the GNVQs to score more points. 

The inference here is that anything deemed to be devaluing the sacred league tables had to be got rid of despite any evidence to the contrary. It merely highlights the fact that curriculum reform in England seems to be heavily influenced by the obsession with markets and providing an easy yardstick for ranking schools. 

The decision to scrap GNVQs wasn’t driven by whether students enjoyed them, or if teachers found them a good vehicle for communicating or engaging pupils, or if the GNVQs led to good outcomes, but how they might affect league tables. 


A lesson from history

It’s the old problem of deja vu. A number of the career civil servants working on the new T-levels would have been at university when GNVQs were scrapped but I doubt they’ll check out what happened then. We need a panel of DfE elders reminding reformers of past experience and mistakes. 

GNVQs lasted considerably longer than Labour’s diplomas that came and went within 4-5 years. How many other good ideas have been thrown out with little research to back the decision? 
Diplomas might well have been successful!  

But reforms are less significant than people. The government seems to think if they can only get the content right and get us to teach it, their problems would be solved. Yet ask any lecturer and we’ll tell you education is not so much about the content (though it’s important) but more about the process of being able to assimilate and sift facts and motivating learners. Transferrable skills. All this focus on trying to get the content right is misplaced. 


Predictions for T-levels

So what will happen with T-levels? Persuading students to take them could be a struggle as people no longer trust innovation from the government. When an education minister says she’ll wait a couple of years before letting her children try them, it’s quite damning, but wouldn’t you do the same and wait a while?

My guess is T-levels could be scrapped after 6-7 years and, if we thoroughly researched outcomes 10 years later, we will probably find they were very similar for students who opted either for T-levels or A-levels! 

The Fischer findings come from a serious piece of academic research funded by the Science Research Council and carried out by Westminster and Bath universities. By comparison, much DfE research seems short-term, looking at issues like current employer attitudes to T-levels. 


‘Transformational’ reforms not fully researched

Sure, you need to check how the reforms are panning out, but sifting through long-term evidence does not seem high on the agenda. Look at the DfE portal full of initial evaluations of this and that. There’s a strong argument for having a vibrant independent research capacity in education. Sadly, I’m not aware of much pressure to have better long-term research. There’s extra money for English and maths but that’s because it’s a new requirement.

Of course, any ‘transformational’ reforms that go on to fail to have by their very nature cost small fortunes to set up - money that could be better used in reducing the funding gap between FE and the rest of the education sector, and within FE the anomaly that leaves 18-year-olds worse off than 16-17s, who in turn get less than 14-15s.

Robert Halfon, chair of the Commons Education Select Committee, says we need more money for FE but is his effort to stop the fuel duty escalator really helping? It might save us £3bn in taxation. If you cut taxes, you can’t increase expenditure.


T-levels are a minority sport so give them time

Despite past precedents, we should not give up on T-levels - it’s currently a minority sport and deserves a decent period to mature - so much has been invested and we are only starting slowly with just three initial T-level strands covering education/care, digital and construction.

The other problem facing T-levels is finding enough placements. If you can’t get enough in, say, the digital sector in Exeter, the argument is there aren’t the local jobs so colleges won’t offer a T-level in digital in that area. But surely one function of education is to enable students to expand their location and get skills to go to another part of the country or Europe. Young people in Exeter are unlikely to see themselves confined to Devon if they have the ability to gain level 3 qualifications.  

Research can show what has happened in the past but who knows what Brexit - or non-Brexit? - could mean for our 16- to 18-year-olds struggling to find their way, open to so many ideas and influences, but ultimately forced to decide their own destiny. 

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