Every year, approximately 900,000 students aged 16 to 18 take level 3 courses, primarily A levels and vocational qualifications, including BTECs. A smaller group, around 170,000, take level 2 qualifications, predominately in vocational subjects. Most take their level 2 courses in general further education colleges, with a smaller number undertaken in sixth form colleges. Level 2 courses support students to progress onto employment and training, including apprenticeships or onto further study at level 3. Official data on both the characteristics of level 2 learners and their destinations post-level 2 is limited. As a result, they have been largely overshadowed by the better understood majority who progress directly onto level 3 study after completing GCSEs. While admittedly smaller in number, level 2 students then are often overlooked and less visible in terms of government policy priorities and widening participation initiatives.
Does this matter? I think it does for both social mobility and economic reasons and I feel that that more should be done in the context of widening participation initiatives and careers guidance to support these learners. For many, their choice in studying a level 2 qualification is made in less than ideal circumstances as most will have likely aspired to have progressed on to a level 3 course. Level 2 learners who did not achieve good passes in their GCSE results then may feel a sense of failure and have their self-belief and confidence dented. While detailed data is limited, a high proportion of these students, as outlined in recent Ofsted research into level 2 study programmes, are likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and disproportionate numbers will have special educational needs and/or disabilities (SEND), looked after or have left care. Levels of motivation and commitment as well as the academic ability of level 2 learners will tend to vary considerably in any particular class. When looking at progression from level 2 qualifications, less than two thirds typically (although this will likely vary considerably by course and provider), progress on to level 3 and only a small minority of those that do not progress currently go on to an apprenticeship.
This would suggest that these learners would benefit from additional support. What we don’t have is any clear picture of what support, if any level 2 learners receive by way of interventions from either career professionals or from HE outreach activities. Anecdotally from my experience this is likely to be limited. While working with younger aged school children is, for example, encouraged by the Office for Students, I have seen no mention of working with this group of learners in their guidance and little in the way of HE outreach schemes which focus on this group. Hard pushed college careers advisers have their hands full working with level 3 learners and while I do know of a number of instances where level 2 learners receive support, this is challenging for careers staff already working, in many instances, with thousands of college level 3 students.
While many level 2 learners may prefer to go on to employment, we have a duty to ensure that these learners are making informed choices based on the full range of potential opportunities and if appropriate encouraged to aim high when making future plans, including the possibility of going on to higher level learning. What we do know is that current and future projections of skills needs of the UK economy highlight continued growth in professional and associate professional occupations which typically require higher level qualifications to enter. Current skills shortages in associate professional and technician, especially STEM, occupations are acute, due in part to the relatively low numbers of learners completing level 4 and 5 vocational and technical qualifications compared with other OECD countries. Professor Dave Phoenix in the HEPI report Filling in the Biggest Skills Gap: Increasing learning at Levels 4 and 5, makes the case that the biggest cause of our levels 4 and 5 skills shortages in England is the shortfall of young learners progressing from lower levels – from 2-3 and from level 3 onwards. Fixing this pipeline of progression then it is argued is key in terms of meeting the demands of the economy.
Here at Linking London we have, through our BTEC and Access practitioner groups, discussed working with level 2 learners and as a result are planning small scale pilots with several of our college and university partners. What the conversations did raise is that there are examples of where colleges are working extremely hard to provide these learners with a positive experience and already delivering a number of innovative activities to support them to prepare for the next stage of their future. In the context of areas identified, where level 2 students could benefit from additional support, these included motivation to study, study skills and maths and English support and working with learners to improve their confidence and aspiration raising, in the context of specific subject areas. We are now in the process of planning several interventions at the colleges we are working with. We hope going forward that we can build on these pilots in future years to help make a real difference to learners at a critical juncture in their lives.