In just under three weeks, the first full cohort of students will get results for new Applied Generals (and some Tech level qualifications) which were reformed for teaching from 2016. These include level 3 BTECs, Cambridge Technicals and a range of other qualifications – the full lists are here – that were redesigned to meet government performance table rules. Some students will be using these to apply to university; others may be using them to apply for jobs, further training or apprenticeships.
These new versions are included on school performance tables but students can still be entered for older versions that often have similar titles. The new versions have one or more externally-assessed units – units where the students’ work is marked by the awarding body, not by the student’s teacher as it would be for internally-assessed units. In most cases these new external units are timetabled exams, set and marked by the awarding body. In the older versions, there is no external assessment.
These new qualifications were taken by a small number of students last summer. This year, students were allowed an additional re-sit for each of the external units, and in the Applied General qualifications there is now a ‘safety net’ for those students who just fail one or more external units. Previously the requirement to pass every unit would have meant they failed the whole qualification, even if they only missed a pass on one unit by one or two marks. There is no such ‘must-pass’ requirement in the older versions, or in A levels. In some of the larger qualifications, equivalent in size to three A levels, this ‘must-pass’ requirement would have meant students having no qualifications after two years of study. With the changes, students can still be awarded the qualification even if they have just missed a pass on one or two units. That’s fairer for students taking these new qualifications.
What does this mean for pass rates in the new qualifications? In the older versions, students don’t claim their qualification until they have passed all the units they need for the qualification. So the ‘pass rate’ at qualification level will look like 100%. But that won’t take into account, for example students who didn’t complete all their units and so didn’t claim the qualification.
In the new qualifications, many students will be claiming their qualification without knowing the result of one or more external units. Even with the safety net we have introduced, it’s likely that some students will not get enough marks in their external units to pass the overall qualification. And so the pass rate for these new qualifications is unlikely to be 100%. But you shouldn’t simply compare that with the 100% pass rate on the older versions – for the reasons I’ve just outlined, it’s not a meaningful comparison.
Fairness for students taking new qualifications
So that students are treated fairly, we have been working with awarding bodies and UCAS to make sure that universities and employers understand the differences between the new and older versions of the qualifications being awarded this summer.
Some students will find the new external units more challenging than the internal units, and in the first years of these new qualifications, teachers may be less familiar with what’s required. We have asked the awarding bodies to bear this in mind when setting standards in the first new external units, so that students are not disadvantaged by being the first to sit these new qualifications.
Nonetheless, it's likely that the introduction of external units will mean that fewer students achieve the higher grades. That’s because students will have to do well in their internal and external units in the new versions. In recent years we have seen increases in the numbers of students achieving those top grades in some of the older qualifications – we have not seen similar increases in A levels. It is right that awarding organisations reserve the top grades for the very best students so that universities and employers can make sound choices between applicants.