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02 September 2021

The future of computing related vocational qualifications

Pete Dring profile image
Written by

Pete Dring | Secondary School Teacher (11-18)

Often designed in collaboration with specific industries and employers, vocational qualifications aim to equip students with the understanding and skills to thrive in the workplace.

A public consultation highlighted that vocational qualifications are perceived as equal in value to their academic counterparts (GCSEs) by parents, students and employers with additional benefits celebrated for vocational qualifications in terms of key life skills, relevance and positive impact on mental health for vocational qualifications.

Academic qualifications like GCSEs dominate the 14-16 educational landscape and the gradual increase in the number of students choosing to study GCSE Computer Science is welcome news.

However, in 2018, 87.6% of students didn’t opt to study for a Computer Science GCSE and the global pandemic of 2019+ highlighted how almost every business, industry or service relies on digital skills.

What practical computing-related qualifications are available for these students to study? What factors shape or limit the scope of these qualifications? How are these qualifications likely to change in the next few years? This post attempts to cast some light on these questions.

There is a wide variety of practical vocational qualifications that students can study from age 14-16 but only a limited subset of these are granted the coveted ‘GCSE equivalence’ status, which means that they can count towards a student’s (and school’s) progress 8 statistics in performance tables. Any vocational qualification can be worthwhile to the students who study it, but it’s rare to see any take up on a significant scale in UK state schools without this DfE-issued stamp of approval.

The current list of DfE approved vocational qualifications contains the following three qualifications that can count towards performance tables in 2023 for students starting Y10 in September 2021:

OCR Level 1/2 Cambridge National Certificate in Information Technologies

Pearson BTEC Level 1/Level 2 Tech Award in Digital Information Technology

OCR Level 1/2 Cambridge National Certificate in Creative iMedia

Due to a DfE review in September 2020, students who will start Y9 in September 2021 will need to be entered for new or updated vocational qualifications with some significant changes.

The breadth and depth of content should be similar (both sets of qualifications are designed to be taught in 120 hours) but students studying the newer qualifications must sit an exam at the end of the course which counts for at least 40% of their final grade.

The list of approved vocational and technical qualifications for students starting Y9 in September 2021 will not be published until late 2021. This can create difficulties for schools who wish to plan ahead or who start delivering KS4 in Y9 but exam boards have published draft specifications designed to meet the DfE’s criteria which can help schools prepare.

For example, OCR are inviting teachers to give feedback on their proposed changes to their redeveloped Cambridge Nationals in Creative iMedia or IT and you can sign up for updates from Pearson regarding changes to their Tech Awards.

In June 2021 Pearson published an interim report about the Future of Qualifications and Assessment for 14-19 year olds which questioned the binary split between academic and vocational pathways for students and called for students to do more practical, career-related qualifications as part of their education. There are many questions arising from the report which will be actively researched in the coming months, with the final report – which is likely to influence the direction of future academic and vocational qualifications – due to be published by the end of 2021.

What do you think? What should future computing-related vocational qualifications look like? How can we integrate high quality careers links into our delivery of both academic and vocational qualifications? The newly redesigned Computing At School Community website is the perfect place to bounce ideas around and discuss teaching and learning opinions in a safe and positive environment. Come and join the discussion!


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