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A new educational divide and a gamble on the future of other people’s children

  • 18 October 2021
  • By Dean Machin

Today’s blog was kindly contributed by Dean Machin, Head of Policy at the University of Portsmouth. Dean is writing in a personal capacity.

Today, the Skills Bill returns to the House of Lords. There is plenty in the Bill so one might wonder why the Lords debated BTEC Nationals for over two hours last week and, during that time, inflicted two defeats on the Government. The reason: BTECs go to the very heart of the Government’s vision for post-16 education. They have become a symbol of competing visions of education.

Not unreasonably, the Government wants to simplify the educational landscape; it wants to reduce the number of people studying unproductive degrees; and it wants to increase the numbers of young people doing higher technical qualifications. Its solution has an elegant simplicity: academic A levels for anyone whose aspires to university, vocational T Levels for everyone else. And that’s it, pretty much.

The destination after T levels is a job or a level 4 or level 5 higher technical qualification, probably in a further education (FE) college. A level 6 ‘top up’ at a university could then follow. In principle, T levels will be a direct route to university. But as people will take only one T level in a fairly narrow area (e.g., human resources) the route from T levels to university might be like getting through the eye of a needle. An aspirational camel would rationally choose A levels.

For this vision to work BTECs – which are neither neatly academic nor vocational (they serve no ‘clear and distinct purpose’[Column 1796] in the Government’s lexicon) – have to go. As long as BTECs can be studied by large numbers of young people, T levels might not grow and some young people will go from BTECs to university bypassing higher technical qualifications. To avoid this problem all BTECs that ‘overlap’(p.19) a T level will be defunded. The Secretary of State will make decisions on overlap and funding.

Evidence shows that students with BTECs do less well at university (relative to A levels) and tend to go to lower ranked universities so what’s the problem? Perhaps nothing but probably something. First, it will not be possible to combine A and T levels so, barring some exceptions, the Government’s vision will produce a rigid binary divide at age 16 setting young people on different life-courses. One reason this might not be wise (and the second problem) is that both T levels and the higher technical qualifications to which they will lead are untried and untested. Three T levels started last year, seven more this year and by 2023 there will be twenty-four. The Government believes (possibly rightly) that T levels are ‘prestigious technical alternative to A Levels'(p.33) but as Lord Adonis noted,

How can we know [this] … only a small minority have been going for a year, no candidates have yet got any of these qualifications and been able to give a view on them, and there has been no evaluation whatever?

(Column 1795)

Third, who is more likely to take this new untried and untested route from age 16? The T level route to higher technical qualifications is unlikely to take off in the independent school sector. This is not snobbery, just a plausible empirical speculation. BTECs are disproportionately studied by BAME students, those with a disability and those who are economically disadvantaged; it seems that they are more likely to end up on T levels. For a levelling-up government is this really the right group of guinea-pigs?

Universities must also be concerned. If the Skills Bill passes in the form the Government intends, and the T level route to higher technical qualifications is a success, where will that leave universities who recruit large numbers of BTEC students? They could recruit fewer students through non-A level routes; they could redesign their courses to fit T levels; or they could move at scale to offer level 4 and level 5 higher technical qualifications. They will need to think seriously about these options. None are costless but the alternative might be worse. If the Government’s reforms are a success, some students who would take BTECs will instead take A levels and have a wider range of university choice. Others, who take T levels, will go into the FE sector. Some universities will be squeezed. Public policy-wise this might be no bad thing but for individual universities it will be serious.  

T levels and higher technical qualifications might well prove to be high quality but they might not. Equally, a binary divide at age 16 might prove to be unwise for society and for young people. There remains time for the proper political scrutiny the Government’s radical plans deserve. As Lord Willetts said, there ‘would be absolute uproar and fury’ if funding for some A levels were to be removed this way.

The least we owe to young people …is to treat a decision to remove the funding for the qualifications that they do as seriously as we would treat a decision to remove the funding for A-levels.

(Column 1794)


1 comment

  1. David Hughes says:

    Good to see this issue being raised. I’d add one key point – to achieve a T Level, a student must do 45 days in industry, study for up to 1000 hours per year and achieve at least grade 4 in English and maths GCSEs. A large proportion of BTEC (and other AGQ) students are likely to be able to achieve that, so it would be wrong for a college to put them on a T Level course of study. Industry placements are unlikely to be accessible for every student everywhere, the GCSE resit pass rate is around a quarter and many students need to work as well as study, so the 1000 hours is very difficult. De-funding current successful qualifications would therefore result in potentially tens of thousands of young people with no qualification to study for at Level 3. What then are their option?

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