DfE review of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 in England: what you need to know | NCFE

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DfE review of post-16 qualifications at Level 3 in England: what you need to know

David Rowley David Rowley Product Manager of Technical Education at NCFE

The Level 3 review represents a significant change in post-16 education policy that presents opportunities and challenges for the FE sector.  

What is it?  

From 2025-2026, Level 3 academic and technical qualifications must meet new criteria; all others will have funding approval withdrawn. Only qualifications that are “necessary, high quality and have a clear purpose” will be approved. The reforms will mean that A Levels and T Levels become the ‘qualifications of choice’ at 16-19 – however, other technical and academic qualifications will also be available. 

What do ‘academic’ and ‘technical’ mean?  

The new landscape aims to create a clear distinction between academic and technical qualifications:  

  • Technical qualifications – primarily designed to support progression to skilled employment/further technical training  
  • Academic qualifications – primarily designed to support progression to higher education. 
Keep up to date with the Level 3 review here
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The new Level 3 landscape
Qualification types

Technical qualifications

Primarily designed to support progression to skilled employment/further technical training

16-19 only →

T Levels

16-19 and adult →

Occupational entry: Quals aligning with an occupational standard not covered by T Levels
Cross cutting/Occupational progression: Quals that selectively cover an occupational standard(s)
Additional specialist: Quals that build on and go beyond an occupational standard

Adult only →

Occupational entry: Quals aligning with an occupational standard covered by T Levels
Employer proposed: Quals delivering competence for occupations without a standard, but where there is employer demand.

Clear distinction between technical and academic qualifications

Academic qualifications

Primarily designed to support progression to further/higher education

16-19 and adult →

A/AS Levels
Small AAQs (150-420GLH): Quals that can be taken in a mixed study programme alongside A Levels
Large AAQs (720-1080GLH): Quals that can be taken as an alternative to A Levels in areas less well served by A Levels
Other academic qualifications: IB Diploma, Access to HE Diploma, Performing Arts Graded Examinations, EPQs, etc.

Understanding the defunding timelines 

Qualifications that don’t meet the new criteria will have their funding withdrawn in cycles. Legacy qualifications will remain funded up to the point their natural replacement ‘goes live’ and gains funding. 

Funding will be removed from qualifications in the following routes: 

August 2024*

Meaning last new starts in September 2023:

August 2025

Meaning last new starts in September 2024:


August 2026

Meaning last new starts in September 2025:


  • Construction and the built environment
  • Digital
  • Education and childcare
  • Health and science
  • Legal, finance and accounting
  • Engineering and manufacturing
  • Business and administration
  • Hair and beauty
  • Catering and hospitality
  • Creative and design
  • Agriculture, environmental and animal care
  • All other routes

*The first wave is just 16-19 technical funding. Both 16-19 academic and adult funding will remain for these routes up to August 2025. 

The future technical landscape  

All technical qualifications must be built around the IfATE occupational standards. It’s helpful to think about these new qualifications in terms of their relationship to the standards.  

Relationship to standard
Qualification type(s) 

ALIGNS to an occupational standard – covers all the knowledge, skills and behaviours (KSBs) in a standard

T Levels 

Occupational entry (16-19 and adults) 

Occupational entry (adult only) 

Qualifications that fully cover the Early Years Educator standard  

For 16-19 learners: T Level Technical Qualification in Education and Childcare  

For adult learners: Occupational entry qualification in Early Years Education 

BUILDS upon an occupational standard – links to a standard and offers learning outcomes for a role in addition to the KSBs

 Additional specialist

A qualification which builds upon the Early Years Educator standard and seeks to provide an individual with specialist competence in the role of a SENCo

SELECTIVELY COVERS an occupational standard – covers some KSBs from within a standard(s)


Occupational progression 

A qualification which includes outcomes from Health and Science, Early Years and Care Services standards to deliver competence in young people's mental health first aid

NO LINK to an occupational standard enables entry to an occupation for which no occupational standard currently exists

Employer proposed 

No available example 

Qualifications will be released in cycles by sector area. In cycle one, only occupational entry and additional specialist categories will be considered for funding. Subsequent cycles will include all categories. The two cycles contain the following occupational routes: 

Cycle one route

First teach September 2025:


Cycle two routes

First teach September 2026:

  • Construction and the built environment
  • Digital
  • Education and childcare
  • Engineering and manufacturing
  • Health and science
  • Agriculture, environmental and animal care
  • Business and administration
  • Care services
  • Catering and hospitality
  • Creative and design
  • Hair and beauty
  • Legal, finance and accounting
  • Protective services
  • Sales, marketing and procurement
  • Transport and logistics

The future academic landscape  

In addition to A Levels, there will be two further types of Alternative Academic Qualification (AAQ): 

  • ‘Small’ AAQs –  the size of one A Level. Learners will be able to study these in a mixed programme containing A Levels. Funding rules will prevent study programmes that consist entirely of small AAQs. Guidance has been published which suggests that “most students taking small approved AAQs will also be studying two A levels”. 
  • ‘Large’ AAQs – these are the size of two or three A Levels and will typically be a learner’s entire programme of study. 

Much like the technical cycles, there will be two waves of release: 

AAQ size
First teach September 2025
First teach September 2026


  • Applied science 
  • Medical science 
  • Engineering and engineering principles or technology 
  • Health and social care  
  • Information technology 
  • Computing 
  • Subjects which support progression to degrees in healthcare professions allied to medicine, dentistry, and nursing 

And ‘exceptionally’

  • Building and construction 
  • Child development and wellbeing 
  • Teaching and lecturing 
  • Direct learning support 
  • Uniformed protective services 
  • Policing 
  • British sign language studies 
  • Art, craft and design 
  • Sound engineering 
  • Animation and visual arts 
  • Performing, production, and creative arts 
  • Music performance, production and technology 
  • Qualifications for music practitioners or the creative music industry 
  • Creative digital media production 
  • Digital games, film and video production 
  • Sport, exercise science, and physical activity 
  • Sporting excellence and performance


No routes available

Performing arts  

  • Performing arts 
  • Production arts 
  • Music 
  • Music technology 
  • Music performance and production 

 Sport, leisure and recreation  

  • Sport 
  • Sport and exercise science 
  • Sport and physical or outdoor activity 

 Crafts, creative arts and design 

  • Art and design 
  • Art, design and media or communication 
  • Fine and applied art 

What does this mean for 16-19 learners going forward? 

Many of the technical categories will rarely see use in a 16-19 learner’s programme of study. We expect that the options available to a 16-19 learner will be: 


  • T Level 
  • Occupational entry diploma (in areas not served by T Levels) 
  • Apprenticeship 


  • 3 A Levels 
  • 2 A Levels and 1 small AAQ 
  • 1 large AAQ. 

What does this mean for adult learners? 

It is expected that the landscape for adults will be more wide ranging, particularly in the technical space. IfATE has published guidance around adult design principles for technical qualifications:  

“In order to ensure accessibility for all adults, technical education qualifications intended for delivery to adult students should be designed to allow for modular delivery and the recognition of prior learning (RPL). 

“IfATE agrees that these elements may help adults access opportunities to reskill or upskill, allowing them to fit study around existing responsibilities such as work or caring.” 

What is NCFE doing to navigate these changes?  

We’ve registered our intentions to both IfATE and the DfE for cycle one developments and we’re working hard to ensure they’re all ready for the July submission deadline. We’re also making extensive plans for subsequent cycles. 

We understand that the review represents a significant shift in the landscape, and naturally there is apprehension in the sector about the future. As the experts in technical education, we believe that we have the expertise to craft exceptional solutions to these challenges. 

Whilst acknowledging the importance of T Levels, we also recognise that these qualifications aren’t appropriate for all learners. In line with our core purpose, NCFE is committed to ensuring no learner is left behind and will endeavour to provide alternative pathways. 

Our specialists are currently exploring all options, both technical and academic, to create high quality qualifications that meet the new criteria. These may be uncertain times, but NCFE has a clear vision to create an outstanding portfolio of Level 3 products that meet the needs of all learners and providers. 

Movements need collaborators  

We want to collaborate with as many stakeholders as possible to shape our new portfolio, to ensure our qualifications are suitable for learners, employers and the sector. If you’d like to share your views with us, you can contact us at [email protected].   

To find out more information and stay up to date, you can visit our dedicated webpage on the Level 3 review here.

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