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 Education for all (home)

Section 11. Qualifications and Progression

Educational aims (Part I) and a vision of learning (Part II) require ‘a system’ which serves their pursuit: schools, colleges, funding. But also they need qualifications which recognise achievement and provide routes into higher education, further training and adult life.

Key points

  • The dominance of qualification-led learning narrows and impoverishes learning.
  • There are severe weaknesses in the standardised framework of qualifications.
  • Progression requires a more independent and well informed IAG service.

Qualifications led

The previous Government accepted the Leitch Report’s ‘upgrading of skills, denominated rigorously in terms of qualified targets at different levels’ by 2020 (IFLL p.32), namely:

  • 90% of the workforce to be qualified to Level 2 (from 69% in 2005)
  • 95% of adults to attain basic skills of literacy and numeracy (from 85% and 79% respectively in 2005);
  • 1.9 million additional Level 3 attainments;
  • 40% of adults qualified to Level 4 (up from 29% in 2005)

Indeed, such upgrading of qualifications would seem, according to TLRP3, to be highly desirable in terms of wage returns on different levels of qualifications – except (see NR p.52) where those qualifications are at Level 2.

However, IFLL (p.31-33) warns against the linking of educational advancement to acquisition of qualifications. This, of course, was written with adult education in mind, but it echoes the messages coming from the Nuffield Review. Indeed, the latter (p.115) looks critically at the fact that ‘qualifications are the main driver of learning in the 14-19 phase’.
Similarly TLRP (5, 6) questioned the ‘standardised’ levels (and thus the hierarchy) of skills built into the framework of qualifications (and thus the funding strategy based on them). It is impossible to equate skills across quite different contexts. Greater flexibility is required in relation to the needs of different occupations. A more authentic model for individual development is needed than a hierarchy of undifferentiated skills.

14-19 phase

This pursuit of qualifications shapes education from age 14 onwards, as that is outlined at length in the Nuffield Review (ch. 8).

At that age, a two year programme is followed for most young people leading to the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). A ‘good’ GCSE result is a grade C or above in five subjects, including maths and English. At 16, a large proportion of young people then embarks on courses leading to the GCE Advanced Level. Moreover, A Level is divided into two parts: AS (Part I) generally taken at 17 and A Level Part II generally taken at 18. Furthermore, both Parts 1 and II are split for most learners into modules, which modules can be repeated in order to obtain better grades

Therefore, GCSE and GCE A Level shape learning in several ways (NR p.115):

  • they constitute the standards by which educational success is judged both for the individual and for the institutional provider;
  • league tables of schools are determined by them;
  • they are the main progression route into higher education – the better the results, the more prestigious the university accessed.

Dissatisfaction with A Level has led to the increased advocacy of the International Bac, the development of the Cambridge Pre-U, and university entrance tests 

Alongside this progression through ‘general education’ there is a wide range of other qualifications usually referred to as ‘vocational’, although this, for some, is a misnomer as
they provide assessment for more general and practical achievements which are not geared to a particular occupation (see NR ch.8). There is a long history of the attempt to provide alternative qualifications at 16 (NR p.116/7), but they normally have a short life span.

Post-16, there are of course many more, often directed at specific occupational competencies. These accredited qualifications are offered by over 120 private ‘awarding bodies’, some well established such as City and Guilds of London Institute, BTEC and ASDAN.


The Nuffield Review summarised the attempts by Government to reform a national framework of qualifications with (i) clearly defined levels, (ii) equivalences between different awards at the same level, and (iii) progression routes through the qualifications and levels. (see NR ch.8 for detailed account of the system and the reforms). This resulted in four pathways:

  • general education (GCSE and A Level)
  • applied learning (the new Diplomas of which there were to be 17 lines but which could be taken along side GCSEs and A Levels)
  • apprenticeships leading to a National Vocational Qualification (NVQ);
  • Foundation Learning Tier for those not yet ready for embarking on the above pathways.

The Nuffield Review outlined the problems inherent within these reforms, much like those suggested by TLRP 6 (see above):

  • the definition of ‘level’, and hence
  • the meaning of ‘equivalence’ between qualifications at the same level;
  • the detailed specification of criteria for success in a qualification at each level such that there was ‘teaching to the test’ rather than to improved quality of learning;
  • the omission of learning experiences not easily measurable;
  • the problems of progression from some of the qualification routes.

Post 19

As the IFLL report constantly asserts, disproportionate amounts of ‘reform’ and funding go to the education and training system up to 19, neglecting the qualification needs in subsequent phases of education which it outlines.

Three reasons are given for addressing this neglect:

  • the need to improve the skills and knowledge of the workforce if economic performance is to be maintained or indeed improved;
  • the changing job market requiring employees to acquire new skills (‘the system does not recognise the increasingly diverse transitions into and from employment’, p.51);
  • the opportunity for adults to compensate for failure earlier in education (see e.g., p.16).

However, as TLRP 8 argued, there is a need post-16, and well into the later stages of adult education, for constant development of skills from those required in earlier stages of a career to
a level which requires, first, application of combinations of skills, second, knowledge across a range of non-routine activities, and, third, the assumption of more responsibility.


These are seen as one of the ‘four pathways’, as set out in the Nuffield Review (ch.8). They can be taken at three levels, though only at Level 3 would the apprentice be seen (informally) as having a ‘licence to practise’ (NR p.143/5). The Government aims to boost the number of apprentices to 500,000 per year.

TLRP 5, however, issues a warning, namely, the need to focus on the quality of learning rather than on just another scheme to realise target numbers or target qualifications. This requires:

  • need for ‘apprentice’ to be contracted to an employer (not enough to be college-based);
  • need for more employers to provide apprenticeships and good quality work-based learning in communities of practice inside and outside the workplace;
  • access to qualifications with planned time for study, opening up further progression;
  • a good Information, Advice and Guidance service.

Information, Advice and Guidance (IAG)

The need for an impartial and shared IAG service, well-informed by research and data driven, is seen as essential by both the Nuffield Review (p.165/6) and IFLL (p.125). As IFLL points out
the phrase ‘the qualification jungle’ is a cliché, but this does not rob it of its force.  We have a mass of courses and qualifications whose status, meaning and validity are often obscure, even to those who have them. Progression routes are too often hard to identify, if they exist at all. (p.54)

Or again (p.51) ‘for those not on established routes of successful schools and college, the map is confusing and discouraging’. Hence the need for a much improves IAG which embraces adult progression and learning, not just those under 19.

Such IAG needs to begin at 14 when decisions are now made about courses which affect subsequent choices and career paths. That IAG needs to have the following features:

  • impartial – giving advice for the benefit of the learner, not for the benefit of the provider;
  • knowledgeable and data-driven about the local and regional employment prospects, and the apprenticeships, courses and qualifications which lead to such employments;
  • detailed knowledge of different higher education courses and matriculation requirements.


Government policy has emphasised the creation of progression routes through schools into further and higher education, into employment related training and eventually into employment. The chief instrument for achieving this has been a qualifications framework, showing the possible progression routes through different levels of attainment in particular academic and vocational pathways. But the framework is ‘a jungle’, difficult to grasp. Decisions have to be made at 14 if the best route through to further or higher education or apprenticeships and work based learning is to be recognised. Hence, the Nuffield and IFLL Reviews ask for a clearer set of pathways and a shared, powerful and well researched centre for employment related guidance.


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