24 Feb 2023

Rt Hon Lord Blunkett, former Education and Employment Secretary

This month, we spoke with former education secretary Lord Blunkett about his work with the Protect Student Choice campaign and fellow former ministers to force the government to look again at their level 3 plans... 

How would you rate the government's handling of the reforms to level three qualifications? 

It’s been very poor on a number of levels. The consultation has been limited. The input from employers has been negligible.  

The commitment made at the dispatch box and in the letter by the then-education secretary Nadhim Zahawi was very clear that they wouldn't use the argument about overlap in these early stages. That they would take account of quality and the numbers on the courses.  

In terms of the 75 qualifications that they intend to defund, we are talking about tens of thousands of students. If the argument's about quality, well, let’s have an argument about quality. If it's about trying to make T Levels work, well think again, because T Levels must work in on their own terms. They can't be forced on students out of the blue. 

What would be your ideal outcome for these reforms? 

That would be to delay the final defunding arrangements until 2026. Unless it is absolutely shown, out of these 75 courses, that there are literally negligible numbers of students. 

The first reason for this is we do need proper consultation. You can't just pull courses from potential students without really taking seriously the consequences.  

The second reason is that both providers and employers are deeply disquieted, and if you don't take notice of both of those, then you really are on an ideological mission rather than delivering to students. Of course, that applies to the impact on our economy.  

But the third is this the general election is going to be held over the next 18 months at some point. When you take steps of this kind knowing that you just might lose that election, you have a responsibility as the governing party and for the sake of the nation to take a step back. In 1997, Gillian Shephard, my predecessor as education and employment secretary took steps on university student funding and on the curriculum to consult with me and to agree a way forward, which would allow some continuity.  

Now, if an incoming government agree that many of these courses should go, that's fine. But to do this in the lead up to an election that the Conservatives, given the polling evidence, are likely to lose, is irresponsible. 

What do you think is the most likely outcome of the reforms? 

I think the most likely outcome is that, given the pressure relating to some of these advanced qualifications, they will give a bit, but not very much. There is a stubbornness within the DNA of the DfE which I find very disturbing. 

Although I have quite a lot of faith in Gillian Keegan's and Robert Halfon’s understanding of the importance of this area, I feel as though the department's got a life of its own. This is very bad news.  

Ministers should be in charge of policy, particularly something as controversial as this, at a time when we desperately need qualified young people coming into the labour market. We've got 1.1 million vacancies. We're not, because of government policy, able to draw people in from the European Union as we did in the past. Employers are crying out for young people with a commitment to vocational and technical education.  

We need both T Levels and the remaining advanced qualifications, which offer quite different routes but to the same end, where young people can take up employment or further study. We've got to open routes rather than close them down.  

Why do you think there has been such a swell of opposition to the reforms? Do you think it something to do with the rollouts and structure of T levels? 

I think it's the lack of consensus about the journey. In one breath they say, we will be moving to defund. On the next breath they say, we won't do that based on overlap. We'll only do it where qualifications are literally not being taken up by students or whether there's considerable doubt about the quality.  

We’ve got to open up routes rather than closing them down
Rt Hon Lord Blunkett, former Education and Employment Secretary

The failure to get a consensus about what that outcome might mean has led to this opposition plus the fact that we know that while many of these T Levels are going to deliver for particular groups of students and employers, they're not by 2025 going to be sufficiently embedded or ingrained across further education in England as a whole, other than in those colleges which pioneered T Levels.

That’s led people in the post-16 sector to say, what is this all about? What is the outcome you are intending to achieve? What is the route to doing it? And do these two things add up? They don't currently. 

What do you think is going to be the next step in the campaign to protect funding for applied general qualifications? 

I'd like all those who have skin in the game to be prepared to come together and be quite robust at this moment in time. 

It is not a big ask to indicate that there should be a proper relook, not just an appeal, but a proper relook at the 75 qualifications we're now talking about.  

To do that properly, we need to push the final decisions on to 2026 and to have a cross-party consensus on how to do that, how best to approach the next 16 months, because they're proposing to make the announcement in July next year.  

It's incredibly tight timetable to achieve substantial change, including recruiting staff, installing the equipment, materials and infrastructure. There is also the impact on employers, particularly at local level and specifically in the most disadvantaged parts of England, where these qualifications are taken up by youngsters who would otherwise not be able to get through the threshold of A level or T Level.  

In fact, they're more likely to go for A-level than T Level. And that is completely contrary to what the government stated policy is intended to achieve.

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