This blog was kindly contributed by Mary Curnock Cook CBE, Chair of Pearson Education Ltd, the UK-regulated qualifications arm of Pearson. You can find Mary on Twitter @MaryCurnockCook.
The start of 2022 opened with a strong show of support for the Level 3 BTEC and Applied General qualifications, with more than 108,000 signatures secured on the Protect Student Choice campaign, led by the Sixth Form College Association in conjunction with 30 partners, as well as heated debates in the House of Lords.
In May 2022, the Department for Education published the long-awaited provisional list of Level 3 vocational qualifications to be defunded in the first phase, affecting new enrolments from 2024/25 in England. One hundred and sixty qualifications appear on this list.
Qualifications were included in scope for defunding if it was perceived that they met all three following criteria in the Department for Education’s guidance:
- Is the qualification ‘technical’ – in that its primary purpose is to support entry into a specific occupational area? [As opposed to being ‘academic’ and primarily supporting HE progression.]
- Are the outcomes of the qualification similar to those set out in an occupational standard covered by a T Level?
- Does the qualification aim to support entry to the same occupation as a T Level?
Exam boards will have the opportunity to appeal if they feel a listed qualification does not meet all three grounds (and exception criteria also apply). The final list of qualifications due to be defunded in the first phase is due to be published in September 2022.
It is important to note that this is just the first phase in the defunding of Level 3 qualifications, with two more phases to follow in subsequent years. All vocational Level 3 qualifications also need to go through a separate Department for Education approval process, irrespective of whether it is listed for defunding, or survives an appeal.
Potential impact on BTEC students
Whilst it is reassuring that the Government have confirmed that BTECs and other Applied General qualifications will continue to have a place in the Level 3 curriculum, and that only less than half will be defunded through this process, the more important issue is how many students this will affect, as recognised by David Willetts. Nearly 25,000 certificates were issued in 2021 for the BTEC Nationals (including legacy versions) on this provisional list alone. According to UCAS 2021 admissions data, over 10,700 students applied to higher education with one of the listed Pearson qualifications or the legacy version. This includes degrees such as Nursing, Allied Health related degrees, a wide range of Engineering disciplines, Education, and Construction-related degrees (such as Civil Engineering, Quantity Surveying).
The Department for Education’s Impact Assessment, published alongside the provisional list of qualifications, shows that student groups sharing specific characteristics ‘may be slightly more affected by this stage of the reform process […] compared to previous analysis on the overall impact of removing public funding from qualifications’ (page 4). This includes:
- female students;
- those from a white ethnic background;
- those with Special Educational Needs (SEN); and
- those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The original Impact Assessment, published in summer 2021, estimated that the equivalent of between three and four per cent of 16 to 19 year-olds who are currently studying Level 3 may no longer be able to progress to Level 3 qualifications as a result of these reforms, assuming mitigations put in place would help as expected (page 7). It remains to be seen what the actual figure will be, particularly in light of lower-than-expected progression rates from the Transition Programme to the T Level, which was just 14% in the first year. Ultimately this will have repercussions for the HE pipeline and students, as recognised by the HEPI publication, Holding Talent Back? What is Next for the Future of Level 3?
Potential impact on BTEC qualifications
Of the 41 Pearson qualifications provisionally listed for defunding, nearly half were either withdrawn or are shortly to be withdrawn by Pearson, or are mainly used in Apprenticeships, whose funding is unaffected by these changes. Just over half, however, are BTEC Level 3 Nationals, including reformed qualifications in Health and Social Care, Engineering, Construction and Childcare.
1) Health and Social Care
There were some surprises in terms of what qualifications were included in this initial provisional list, which arguably do not meet the Department for Education criteria for inclusion. This includes the two A Level equivalent, the BTEC Level 3 National Diploma in Health and Social Care. Each year just over 70 per cent of holders apply to higher education, in line with its primary purpose to aid progression to higher education as an ‘Applied General’ qualification. This accounted for nearly 3,000 students in 2021 holding this qualification or the legacy version. Many students will take this qualification, alongside an A Level (for example Biology, or another Science) and progress to Nursing, Allied Health and Social Work, as well as a range of other degrees. The BTEC qualification also covers Social Work, which is not covered in one of the new T Levels. It is one of the most recognised health and social care qualifications for progression to Higher Education. According to UCAS Admissions 2021 data, just over a quarter (26%) of those who were accepted onto a Nursing degree in 2021 held a BTEC, either this specific qualification, or another one in the Nationals suite. It is no surprise that NHS Employers have expressed a concern about some BTEC qualifications being defunded.
It was also surprising to see that a number of Engineering (General, Mechanical, Manufacturing) qualifications were listed from across the exam boards, due to perceived overlap with the Construction T Level, bringing forward the defunding of this subject one year earlier than the Department for Education’s published timeline (pages 17-22). This is presumably in relation to the Civil Engineering or Building Services Engineering pathways in the Construction T Level, with the latter designed for progression into a construction trade / craft, such as a plumber or electrician. Few, if any, would consider these pathways to cover the same occupational roles and disciplines as the BTEC Level 3 Nationals in Engineering, which support students to progress into a wide range of Engineering degree disciplines (including Mechanical Engineering, Electronic and Electrical Engineering, Aerospace Engineering, General Engineering).
Engineering and Construction: case study of Civil Engineering degrees
It would be simple to assume that because qualifications will be removed in subject areas with an overlapping T Level there will be no real gap in provision. However, the picture is more complex, even when viewing it solely from the lens of higher education.
Of the 54 UK universities that offer a degree in Civil Engineering (BEng), all accept BTEC Level 3 Nationals, primarily the Engineering and Construction qualifications provisionally listed by the Department for Education to be defunded in this first phase.
Despite the growing list of higher education institutions accepting T Levels in general, eight of those 54 universities do not currently accept the T Level for this specific programme. A further 20 have not yet confirmed whether they accept the T Level for this degree. Interestingly, nearly all in this category have subject requirements, usually met by specific Maths-related units in the BTEC, or A Level Maths.
In summary, at the time of writing, we do not know whether the T Level will be accepted for just over half of the Civil Engineering (BEng) degrees across the UK. This means that Department for Education might defund established qualifications before we have seen that the new T Levels can offer a comparable higher education progression route for priority subject areas. This issue is replicated across multiple subject areas. Valid routes into higher education are at risk of disappearing as a result of these reforms, and will, unfortunately, disproportionately impact those from a widening participation background.
Everyone in education should urge policymakers to delay these reforms to ensure there are no unintended consequences for students, just has been advocated by other stakeholders, such as the Association of Colleges.
We are at a crunch point in this reform process. The Protect Student Choice debate in Parliament on 18 July 2022 offers us a checkpoint, as articulated by the Sixth Form College Association. There is a place for both T Levels and BTECs in the curriculum. Policymakers should use the opportunity of the debate to re-evaluate what is at stake for students, universities, the graduate workforce and the UK economy.