What has changed over the last five years?
Changes to the minimum school leaving age
Perhaps the most fundamental reform has been the change to the minimum school leaving age in England. Since 2015, 16 to 18-year olds must do one of the following:
- stay in full-time education, at school or college or other educational institution (defined as at least 540 hours a year, around 18 hours per week) or
- start an apprenticeship, traineeship or supported internship or
- spend 20 hours or more per week working or volunteering whilst in part-time education (part-time education or training should be at least 280 hours per year).
The change was made to improve the prospects for young people, many of which were leaving education completely at the age of 16. By making it compulsory to stay in education or training for longer it is hoped young people will develop a greater range of skills and reduce their chances of unemployment.
Since 2017 GCSEs have been re-written in a bid to make them more challenging for students. As well as an increase in content covered by each subject, there has been a significant reduction in coursework and all exams are now taken at the end of two years.
Perhaps the most visible change to GCSEs is that of the grading system. Grading is now numerical, ranging from 9 to 1 instead of A* to G. The Government’s stated aim in doing this is to improve employers’ confidence in the qualifications. There are also more grades at the higher end of the scale which helps to recognise the very highest achievers. Under the new system a grade 4 is considered a ‘standard pass’ (roughly equivalent to a low C in the past), grade 5 seen as a ‘strong pass’ with a grade 9 being the equivalent of an A*.
Maths and English
In response to concerns expressed by employers about the numeracy and literacy skills of school leavers, the Government has made it mandatory that all students without a grade 4/C in English and/or maths continue their study in that subject until they reach the required standard.
More information on this can be found in the GCSE Maths and English section of this guide.
A Levels have also undergone significant change since 2015. AS levels have been decoupled from A levels and have become stand-alone qualifications. It is no longer necessary to take an AS exam in the first year of A level study and indeed, many institutions are moving away from AS exams completely.
As with GCSEs, all awarding bodies have re-written their specifications for each subject, and coursework has been significantly reduced.
Further information on these changes can be found in the A levels section of this guide.
A greater emphasis on vocational education and training
In order to provide students with the work-ready skills they need to enter employment, the Government has placed greater value on vocational education and training. Vocational education combines practical training in a specific job area with related study.
A very common route into employment now for young people is to undertake an apprenticeship. This enables young people to ‘earn while they learn’, bringing home a salary of at least £3.90 per hour if under 19, and at least minimum wage if aged over 19. Apprentices usually spend one day a week at a local education institution studying for a qualification related to their work. An apprenticeship will take from 1 to 5 years to complete depending on their level and will very often result in a permanent job offer at the end. The areas in which an apprenticeship can be undertaken are vast, ranging from hairdressing to accountancy to engineering.
There are multiple levels available, including a Higher Apprenticeship which enables participants to achieve a Level 4 qualification such as a HND or foundation degree.
Further information on apprenticeships can be found in the relevant section of this guide.
Traineeships are designed for young people who want to progress onto an apprenticeship but don’t have the necessary skills yet. A traineeship lasts up to 6 months and includes work preparation, English and maths support and an unpaid work experience placement.
Visit the traineeship section of this guide for further information.
Supported Internships are for young people who have learning difficulties or learning disabilities. To qualify for this programme a person needs to have a Statement of Educational Needs and Disabilities (SEND), a Learning Difficulty Assessment or an Education Health and Care Plan (EHCP). Supported internships last for at least 6 months, are unpaid and designed to help the student move into paid employment at the end of the programme.
More information can be found in the Supported Internships section of this guide.
T-Levels are a brand new technical alternative to A Levels being introduced from September 2020. Lasting two years they have been created in collaboration with employers to meet the needs of industry and prepare students for work. A completed Level 3 T- Level will be the equivalent of three A levels.
There will be 15 different pathways ranging from accountancy to education, and human resources to construction. Students will spend 80% of their time in the classroom (as opposed to 20% on an apprenticeship) and 20% on an industry placement of at least 45 days.
The new T-Level qualification will be phased in over a few years, with only 54 institutions offering it in 2020.
More information can be found in the Technical Qualifications section of this guide.
Work experience and non-qualification activity
You may have started to notice a theme –recent educational reform has been focused on better preparing young people for the workplace, with an emphasis on students gaining meaningful work experience.
The government expects all providers of 16-19 education to provide all students with work experience opportunities – even if they are studying academic A levels.
Alongside this, every post-16 student is expected to receive an element of ‘Non-qualification activity’ as part of their study programme – things such as tutorials, development of social skills, enrichment and activities to develop their character.