FAB Chairman’s annual speech to conference ‘Diversity and Choice in Qualifications’

Paul Eeles, Leicester Marriott Hotel, October 10th, 2019

Good morning Ladies and Gentlemen,

We’re back in Leicester again in a year that has simply flown by. Who knew Leicester, famous for its crisps and premiership surprise a few years ago, would become the home of the assessment industries Annual conference, we’ve looked for other venues but nowhere else seems quite like home for us!

And it’s always great to see so many of our members coming together as an industry. The experts in Assessment gathered like….

I recognise many familiar faces. And some new faces. But whether this is your first time at FAB conference, or your tenth time: you are all welcome to share in a world class industry that shapes the lives of millions of learners every year.


Compared to the turmoil and political uncertainty of our current times, 12 months ago seems like a relative oasis of calm.

The only constant it seems for AOs is one of change. I made this point in my speech last year, including pointing out how resilient and adaptive we have become as a sector.

A decade ago we had to contend with the Skills Funding Agency; Sector Skills Councils and the UKCES. Here we are in 2019, and all these quangos have gone.

Not, Ofqual, though (They were formed in 2008). So, congratulations to them for standing the relative test of time… (and they are not even a teenager yet!).

Of course, a new set of bodies has replaced the ones that are no longer around. I suppose we just have to be mindful, particularly in our sector, whether the stakeholders we deal with today will still be here in a decade’s time.

This is important, because in Manchester last week, our new Secretary of State for Education in England, Gavin Williamson, set out the government’s ambition of leapfrogging Germany in the field of technical education by 2029.

I think we should all applaud that ambition. But it does beg the question: how as a nation do we get there? And what exactly are the metrics with Germany are we comparing ourselves against?

I want to use my speech this year to focus on our industry’s contribution to this challenge; to talk about the key issues we face; and make the case for why continued diversity and choice in qualifications is so important for learners and employers.

Industry challenges

I know that many of you are operating in a difficult and complex environment. Margins are tight. Regulatory load and burdens across the UK are increasing.

Six years after the apprenticeships reforms were introduced, and here we are: still having a debate about the right delivery models of external quality assurance!

It can often feel in our world that Ministers go for the big-bang approach, blow up the place so to speak, only to leave those of us at the front line to pick up the pieces.

The government’s review of qualifications at Level 3 and below is a major case in point.

Ministers say they want to rationalise the number of qualifications that attract public support in future. They are also intending to make ‘space’ for new T-Levels by derecognising existing Level 3 qualifications that could be seen to compete with them. Meanwhile, DfE wants to introduce kite-marked higher technical qualifications at Levels 4 and 5, which could further restrict the marketplace and learner choice.

The real problem with this direction of travel, potentially, is that the underlying thinking is one of the state saying to learners, employers and the wider economy, that ‘it knows best.’

That competition must be restricted in the existing marketplace to ensure a more limited choice of qualifications – for example new T-levels – can be guaranteed success in future.

Well, I think we would argue, from experience, that Whitehall does not know best. And that no single qualification can be guaranteed success by simply making it the only choice available.

T-Levels may achieve high or low enrollments; but that is not the same as saying they will achieve the purpose for which they were intended. That’s why we need to continue with a diverse qualifications marketplace driven by the needs and ambitions of learners.

And especially in a time of such rapid change – what commentators have called the 4th Industrial revolution.

Let’s just reflect for a moment what this revolution means for education:

  • It is a world where automation and robotics are going to replace up to 35% of jobs by 2040; so inevitably different teaching and pedagogical methods are going to be required.
  • These new technologies will give rise to complex occupational niches; take cyber security analysts – they hardly existed a decade ago.
  • And while all this change is going on, companies and people will be required to be even more agile in how they go about their day-to-day business.

In short, such a bottom-up and consumer-driven revolution is almost the complete opposite of someone in central government, trying to design a qualifications and skills system from the top-down.

The truth is that awarding and assessment organisations have always worked closely with employers to meet the needs of learners. And AOs certainly do not just make up qualifications for the sake of it.

We exist in a highly regulated market that ensures quality and public confidence in what we do.

It is why it is encouraging to see that some of the government’s rhetoric about our industry of late has been shifting. Have you noticed that they no longer say there are just too many qualifications or AOs, but instead focus on the issue of quality?

I welcome that shift.

Even so, changes to funding of qualifications since the Wolf Review has seriously impacted the opportunities available for many learners. As I wrote in FE Week recently, there has been a decline of 2.2 million certifications amongst FAB members over the past 5 years.

Beyond the headline statistics you’ll find real human beings of all ages, with ambition and life stories:

  • Including people who are just starting out in life; to get a foothold on the employment ladder.
  • Many of these entry-level qualifications are the start of a journey: to build personal confidence; to try new vocational areas; or to progress directly into work or further study.
  • And older learners too, who need the re-skilling opportunities brought about by a sudden change in their personal or employment circumstances.

It is no wonder perhaps that the government’s own Social Mobility Commission reported earlier this year that mobility is stalling for low-skilled, low-paid workers.

Dame Martina Milburn cited the fact that cuts to youth and adult skills budgets by both government and employers in recent years has limited the opportunities for lower skilled people to get on in life via better qualifications – even though they are the group most likely to benefit.

The same has been happening with new apprenticeships: the top 20 standards for starts in 2019 has been in management occupations, at Level 3 and above.

In the Bible and in economics this is known as the Matthew Effect: ‘To those that have, shall have even more.’

Ladies and Gentleman, we are the sector of social mobility and learner opportunity; so, we need to call out these really adverse effects when we see them. We need to ensure that government reviews, like the one at Level 3 and below, doesn’t just end up kicking away the ladder of opportunity under people, adult learners and vast parts of the country.

At FAB, we continue to lobby and educate policy-makers that qualifications have a number of purposes – social and economic. They operate in an open labour market; and therefore, the numbers will always be a reflection of the specific demands of a complex eco-system; often driven by the wider needs of the domestic and global economy.

Who would have thought in 2013 that the Institute for Apprenticeships would end up approving over 700 apprenticeship standards and assessment plans? It has approved twice the number of Germany’s apprenticeship model and three times that of Switzerland.

These higher than expected numbers are clearly a reflection, that in a more employer-responsive world, occupations will come forward at all sorts of levels that many of us have never heard of.

My advice to the Secretary of State when I meet him

So, when I meet with the Secretary of State at the end of October, here is what I will be saying to him on your behalf.

By all means, lets beat Germany at skills (as well as football and in the Eeles house hold Ultimate Frisbee at U17’s, U20’s and Open levels, you not heard of Ultimate Frisbee, then it’s definitely something you should YouTube). But let’s also remember the German technical education and apprenticeship system has had massive investment; and real policy stability spanning decades.

We need the same.

He also needs to restore the post of a Minister of State for our sector! I admire his interest in FE and the work he is doing. But that is not the same as having a daily ministerial champion like we had in Anne Milton.

Of course, we support T-Levels. But let’s not try and artificially create the conditions for their success. Let’s ensure we don’t ‘throw the baby out with the bath water’, by recognising there are lots of other world-class qualifications already competing in this space.

On apprenticeships, I will be encouraging Gavin Williamson to work with us and Ofqual, the Institute and the OfS, in finding more efficient ways to externally quality assure our apprenticeship model in future.

That means funding EQA as a national infrastructure cost; and ironing out many of the inconsistencies that have resulted because of a lack of a singular regulatory approach.

It means ensuring a level regulatory playing field for all EPAOs – regardless of whether they have operated in the assessment market for 10 years or 10 minutes (I look forward to hearing what Sally Collier, our chief regulator, has to say on this topic later).

I would like the Secretary of State to work more closely with his counterparts in the devolved administrations; all four regulators; and the Department for International Trade; so that we can really put rocket boosters under the continued export potential of UK qualifications.

Over 1 million Ofqual regulated qualifications were exported by our members last year. Which is probably a gross underestimate, as only in January 2020, will Ofqual require mandatory reporting of all overseas sales.

So, in conclusion: diversity and choice in qualifications is a great British success story. It is hardwired into the very fabric of our industry’s DNA.

We help millions of learners progress every year. Helping their dreams come true.

Crucially, our mixed market economy in qualifications has stood the test of time. Our task now is to continue to work together and build on its success.

This is where the real answer lies; and not in the ideology of the state knows best.

Because gathered here as a dynamic and world-class industry; and in chairing your national trade body; I am absolutely determined to ensure that we will continue to go forward in that way.

Thank you.