A 14-19 phase - anyone?   

By Darren Hankey

Much ink has been spilled by policymakers, thinktanks and employer representative bodies over the last few decades with regards to the complexity of 16-19 education in England. 

For 16-year-olds entering Level 3 qualifications, the Conservative Government has pursued until recently a three-route model:  A Levels, T Levels and Apprenticeships. The defunding of Level 3 vocational qualifications other than T Levels and the travails over T Level work placements have constantly hit the headlines. 

Less eye-catching, but still critically important, is the slimming down of the number of vocational Level 2 qualifications on offer at age 16. And then there is GCSE resits with a minimum of 3 hours per week for English and 4 hours per week for Maths, leaving only 9 hours per week of vocational education.  

Conservative Party Policy 

Now, the Prime Minister is seeking to take 16-19 education in a completely new direction.   

Published last December, the Department for Education (DfE) is consulting a new baccalaureate-style framework for 16-19 year-olds under the utterly misleading name of the Advanced British Standard (ABS).  

At Level 3, 16-19 year-olds will be able to study an ABS and an Occupational ABS. A levels and T levels as names will disappear. Young people will choose from majors and minors – delivering a greater breadth of study – and the number of hours will rise in line with international counterparts. 

The same number of hours for full-time Level 3 study will be available for full-time Occupational Level 2 programmes. Getting 16-year-olds to Level 2 quicker is a crucial aim of the reforms – these students may then wish to find skilled employment. 

A one-year transition programme will aim to support 16- and 17- year- olds to progress to a Level 3 ABS programme. Lessons from the present T Level foundation and Academic Progression Programme will inform policy design. 

Every 16–18 year-old in full-time further education will also have to continuously study English and Maths irrespective of their prior attainment. A 16-year-old re-sitting GCSE Maths and English, and gaining a Grade 4+ will still need to study Maths and English even if not at Level 3 standard. 

Five Reflections 

The reforms are not about today’s 16–19-year-olds. The Conservatives have yet to publish a timetable setting out the transition to the ABS. It seems the cohort in question started primary school this academic year starting in September 2023 and will not start the ABS until around September 2033 when they reach 16. 

Continuous study of English and Maths irrespective of prior attainment is a massive undertaking, with major implications for the 16-19 FE workforce. Currently, only a quarter of 17-year-olds in full-time further education are studying English and Maths at some level.  

Encouraging young people who gain a Level 2 at age 17 to stay on in full-time further education and commit to a two-year full time Level 3 programme requires more than curriculum change. Many 18–19-year-olds will need and want money to have a degree of independence. Although their parents might receive means-tested child benefit and the child element within Universal Credit, more than the present 40% of 17-year-olds could require a part-time job. The prospect of studying longer hours with no access to financial support or a part-time job could scupper the project. 

Most startingly of all, who would have thought a Conservative Prime Minister would propose the abolition of A levels. When Labour proposed the abolition of A levels in favour of 14-19 diplomas in 2004/05, the leader of the Conservative Opposition vetoed the move. 

And then there is the key lesson. Gaining stakeholder support is obviously critical. But political consensus is even more important for long-term education reform. 

Labour Party Policy 

Turning to the Labour Party, it has said very little about the strategic reform of the 16-19 phase if successful at the next general election.  

The only clues in its policy statement Breaking Down the Barriers to Opportunity are that Labour aim to increase Level 3 achievement by age 19 from 63% to 75%, and urgently conduct a Curriculum and Assessment Review (CAR). 

We have no idea if Labour will rule out the ABS reforms when they publish their manifesto at election time, rule them out once in office before the Curriculum and Assessment Review is published or consult the education world again as part of the review. 

14-15 Technical Education   

Down the age range, both political parties have docked their cap to some extent to enabling 14–15-year-olds to undertake vocational education at Key Stage 4. 

Late last year, the House of Lords committee on 11–16-year-olds published a report calling for more young people at Key Stage 4 to be able to study technical education. Earlier this month, the government responded by saying a greater range of technical awards are now available for 14–15-year-olds. 

In its Breaking Down Barriers policy statement, the Labour Party has stated “as a first step towards encouraging all young people to study a broad curriculum through to the end of secondary school, one of the non- EBACC subjects …should be a creative or vocational subject.”   

The key words are, of course, as a first step. 

But an important observation is that both the Conservatives and Labour are focused on vocational and technical education delivered by schools for 14–15-year-olds. A hidden gem in our system is the role of 14–15-year-olds enrolled as full-time students studying technical awards alongside GCSE English and Maths. 

There is so much to gain from secondary schools and FE colleges working together to expand part-time and full-time technical education at Key Stage 4, not least in reducing non-attendance. 


A fair characterisation is that mass participation by 14–15-year-olds is a step too far: vocational education seems to be for some not the many.  And there is no such thing as a 14-19 phase. 

But maybe Labour is less put off by a large proportion of 14–15-year-olds studying technical education at school or college - full-time or part-time – as part of the school curriculum.  

Indeed, Labour’s Curriculum and Assessment Review provides an opportunity to consider a more baccalaureate-style approach to a 14-19 phase of education. 

The party should not miss it.


Darren Hankey is Principal and CEO of Hartlepool College of Further Education