The 14-19 Reforms: where are we now?

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"The 14-19 reforms are a welcome development… they offer young people clear and flexible routes into the working world, responding to their own interests and abilities while reflecting the different needs of employers."
Sir Alan Jones of Toyota

Since the 14-19 reforms were introduced last September they have received positive feedback from numerous employers. Support from universities has also been demonstrated; UCAS recently announced that over 80 per cent of undergraduate courses will be accessible to Advanced Diploma students. But what has the response been on the ground? This article, supplied by the DCSF, explains the changes and looks at how they have been received by teachers and students so far.

The 14 to 19 education and training reforms were introduced in recognition that a ‘one size fits all’ approach to education and training did not meet the needs of today’s young people.  Designed to give young people greater choice and flexibility over how and what they learn,  the reforms include the Diploma, a new qualification which combines classroom learning with practical hands-on experience; an increased number of Apprenticeships; updated A levels and GCSEs; and the Foundation Learning Tier (FLT), for students who are not yet ready for Level 2 qualifications. This new range of choices will support the increase in the minimum age at which young people can leave learning - from 2013, learners will stay in education or training, or in work with training, until the age of 17, and from 2015, until 18. This modern menu of options will help ensure that young people of all backgrounds and aptitudes can find a path that suits them, encouraging them to stay in learning for longer and providing them with the skills and knowledge they need for work, college or university.

The Diploma
The introduction of the Diploma is one of the most significant changes. It offers a unique blend of theoretical study and practical learning, and allows students to learn in a work-related setting, as well as through traditional classroom-based lessons. It was developed in consultation with schools, colleges, universities and employers to reflect the needs of the modern working environment.  Although each Diploma focuses on a specific sector area, such as Engineering or Society, Health and Development, all students must demonstrate competency in functional skills – maths, English and ICT - as well as in personal skills such as critical thinking and team work.  All Diploma students are also required to complete at least 10 days’ work experience.

For Sarah Wilson, studying an Advanced Diploma in Society, Health and Development at Newham Sixth Form College in London, it is the practical element of the Diploma that gives it the edge over a BTEC or A level in similar subjects. “We’re studying four sectors right now: children and young people, social care, criminal justice and health. We are learning all about how each works, the key skills that you need, and how they crossover. There’s a mix of learning in the classroom through assignments and projects and work experience - I really like that.”

Ray Isaacs, teaching a Diploma in Information Technology at Gleeds Girls Technology School in Spalding, agrees that it is the work-related element of the Diploma that makes it stand out. “The Diploma gives students a proper chance to see how what they learn in school relates to the outside world in a practical and beneficial way. Much of the course is based on problem-solving and the students are encouraged to find solutions through both teamwork and independent thought, key skills for almost any profession.”

However, Ray admits that engaging employers to support work-related learning isn’t always straightforward. “Getting employers involved wasn’t easy at first. It’s always going to be difficult to get support when people are unfamiliar with the concept and don’t know what Diplomas are trying to do. Employers are understandably wary about putting time into an unknown entity, but as soon as I sit down with them and explain what the Diploma is and what the long term benefits will be for them, they tend to become a lot more accommodating.”

Diplomas are currently available in five subjects: Construction and the Built Environment; Creative and Media; Engineering; Information Technology; and Society, Health and Development. A further five are being introduced this September, including Environmental and Land-based Studies and Manufacturing and Product Design. By 2011, there will be a total of 17 subjects to choose from.  The Diploma is designed to be flexible so students can supplement their learning with other qualifications if they wish. It is usually taken over a two-year period and is available at three levels - Foundation, Higher and Advanced. 

Functional skills and personal, learning and thinking skills
For some time employers have been calling for young people with stronger literacy, numeracy and ICT skills. These functional skills are now a key part of the 14 to 19 curriculum, so irrespective of the path a young person follows from 2010 every student will study maths, English and ICT. Functional skills will be built into in GCSEs, and are key components of the Diploma, Apprenticeships and the FLT. Learners from age 11 up will also develop personal, learning and thinking skills, such as presentation, teamwork and critical thinking. 

The Extended Project
The Extended Project is available as a stand-alone qualification (worth half an A level) but is an integral part of the Advanced Diploma. It allows students to pursue an area of special interest, giving them the opportunity to develop the kind of analytical and independent learning skills that universities are looking for. It is flexible so students can opt to work individually or as part of a group. They can also decide how they want to present their project - some may decide on a traditional format such as an extended essay, much like a university dissertation, others might conduct a scientific investigation or a field study or deliver a dramatic performance.

Dave Pugh who teaches the Extended Project as part of the Advanced Diploma in Creative and Media at Oldham College, Greater Manchester, is pleased that there is now a qualification that focuses on independent learning. He says, “The Extended Project gives young people the freedom to delve into something outside the normal perimeters of the curriculum, something they are really interested in and passionate about. Whereas traditional qualifications such as GCSEs and A levels require teachers to steer students through a syllabus, the Extended Project requires young people to decide what they want to learn and to a large extent, how and when they go about learning it.” 

However, Dave acknowledges that the qualification is not right for everyone, “I know other teachers have found some students are not ready for this level of independent learning - it is really important that teachers assess the appropriateness of the qualification on a case by case basis and are confident that students are mature enough and can self-motivate.”

An Apprenticeship combines paid work with on-the-job training, qualifications and progression. The range of Apprenticeships is being expanded to cover more sectors. By 2013, all appropriately qualified young people will be entitled to an Apprenticeship place post 16.

GCSEs and A levels
A levels and GCSEs are still a key part of 14-19 education, but have undergone an overhaul.  For most GCSE subjects, coursework will be replace by controlled assessment, and by 2010 GCSEs in English, maths and ICT will incorporate functional skills.  A levels have been modernised to make them more contemporary and relevant. The content of exam papers has become more stretching, and questions are more open-ended and less prescriptive, requiring greater thought and more detailed written answers.

Foundation Learning Tier
The Foundation Learning Tier, which provides a comprehensive range of progression pathways for students who are not yet ready for Level 2 qualifications, is now being piloted. Students follow personalised programmes towards key destinations such as the Diploma, Apprenticeships, skilled employment and independent living. Each pathway contains a mix of functional skills, personal and social development, and vocational or subject-based learning.

Commenting on the Foundation Learning Tier, Philippa Skate, Entry to Employment Contact Manager at Selby College in Yorkshire, says, “All the young people I work with have barriers to education and are at risk of becoming NEET (not in education, employment or training), but the FLT is helping them to see how education can work for them, that they can achieve and be successful like everyone else.  Many of them have grown up thinking that to be successful you need to have five A-Cs at GCSE. For the first time they believe that they can achieve something.”  

Clearly, it is still early days for the 14-19 reforms, but as Sir Alan Jones says, education and training now better reflects the needs of both students and employers. As we enter the second year of their delivery, it seems that teachers and students are positive and receptive to the changes.  There have been challenges to overcome, and there will be more in the coming years, but these changes will give today’s young people a greater chance to maximise their potential and achieve success in their futures.

Further information and resources
The 14-19 Reforms and You toolkit - a practical resource to help leaders and managers in colleges disseminate key information.   For details on how to order please see

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