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Rising to the challenge

  • 23 February 2017
  • By Rod Bristow

This guest blog responding to HEPI’s new report on BTECs as a route to higher education has been kindly provided by Rod Bristow, President, Core Markets for Pearson.

A recent editorial in the Guardian noted that ‘England’s beleaguered vocational education system has been subjected to wave after wave of reform. Yet improving the quality of technical education has eluded governments of all colours.’

This sad observation provides an all-too-enduring backdrop for the discussion inspired by Scott Kelly’s impressive analysis of the purpose and potential of the BTEC qualification in enriching and diversifying our higher education student intake. The report rightly challenges everyone – government, universities and (by implication) Pearson as the owner of BTEC – to think through the development of BTEC in the context of the changing landscape envisaged by the Government’s Skills Plan, inspired by the summer 2016 report by Lord Sainsbury.

This challenge is one I accept with relish on behalf of Pearson. The report touches on an under-appreciated fact, which is that this year we are witnessing some profound changes in BTEC qualifications. Perhaps the changes to BTEC are a little drowned out by the big changes in GCSE and A-Levels from this summer but from this year, for the first time, BTEC students will undertake assessments that are marked externally as a significant part of their qualification. Previously the regulatory framework demanded regular, ongoing, internal assessment as the method for evaluating student performance. This is a significant change, and one we have embraced – developing and devising the new assessments alongside our employer and higher education partners. It has long been asserted that BTEC students perform some tasks well in higher education, and others less so. Performance in exams is one attribute it is sometimes said that BTEC students lack, and this change will address this. It is a change that has been very warmly welcomed by the higher education sector.

The report is also right to reflect that, in reforming BTEC, we need to strike a delicate balance. The last thing we would want for BTEC is to turn them into a rehash of the soon-to-be discontinued Applied A-Level. We are far more ambitious than that. BTEC students are valued for what they can do, not just by an unhelpful comparison with students who took A-Levels – not least when one considers that the fastest growing route into university sees students combining A-Levels and BTECs.

In implementing this profound change in BTECs, we know that the shift to external assessment needs to be handled sensibly and sensitively if we are to ensure no student is left behind, just because they happened to be among the cohort of students taking the first round of external assessments. While we will ensure these new forms of assessment are implemented sensibly, they will unquestionably give us powerful levers with which we, as experts in assessment, can exercise better control of the number of students accessing the highest grades. This is something addressed by Scott Kelly in this report and is something I blogged about on the HEPI site last year.

I am delighted the report defends the vital importance of BTEC in the UK education system, and the need to preserve it in the context of the post-Sainsbury landscape. The future of so-called Applied General qualifications like BTECs is currently under consideration, and while no qualification is perfect, this report supports my view that the changes we are making to BTEC can ensure that we continue to provide an applied route through to university – particularly those who would otherwise be even more under-represented in our universities because they are male, or black, or disabled or from a socially disadvantaged background.

And once BTEC students arrive at university, the report is right to challenge everyone in the sector to ensure we do more to ensure that BTEC students flourish and succeed – an area where we all need to up our game, notwithstanding the significant progress made in recent years. And why? We know that graduates who had previously studied a BTEC earn 20 per cent more than BTEC students who did not go on to higher education.

I congratulate the team at HEPI for this report – we are acting on it, and we will be mindful of protecting the distinctiveness of BTECs, as the closing recommendation of the report demands.

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