Has Gavin just insulted teachers and students?

The education secretary attacks ‘second-rate qualifications’ but the replacement will most likely lead to levelling down, says Geoff Barton
16th July 2021, 12:00pm


Has Gavin just insulted teachers and students?

T Levels: A Small Boy Shouting Through A Megaphone At Two Girls With Hands Over Their Ears

For many years, because of some great teachers in my life, I taught English

I like to think that part of my mission, as a teacher of language and literature, was to help my pupils to express ideas with clarity, precision and elegance through their speech and writing.

But enough nostalgia and high principles. Back here in the real world this week, I read a government press release on post-16 qualifications. It announced that young people would in the future have a “clearer choice of high-quality post-16 qualifications”. 

This, we were told in breathless prose, was part of a shake-up of the post-16 system, “to remove low-quality qualifications that lack job prospects”.

Who could possibly disagree with such a premise? Surely we all want to see young people taking high-quality qualifications that lead to good careers.

But a translation of that press release tells a rather different story. In fact, what is being planned here is to scrap (or “de-fund”, to use the jargon) the majority of applied general qualifications - such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals - which are popular courses taken by around 200,000 students each year and are a proven pathway to higher education. 

Instead, students will now have to follow either an academic route, via A levels, or a technical route, via the government’s new T levels. You can get a better sense of what is actually planned by reading the guidance for providers.

T levels: attacking ‘second-rate qualifications’

The press release, however, was untroubled by such detail. Instead, the education secretary gushed that “there can be no room in our education system for second-rate qualifications”. 

Which qualifications does he have in mind? Surely, he would not want to casually insult the thousands of students who take applied generals, or the schools, colleges, and exam boards that provide them

At first glance, it is hard to fathom why the government would want to scrap applied general qualifications. They are an established pathway, which works very well for large numbers of students. Teachers are experienced in delivering them, and employers understand and recognise them.

But, as ever, there’s some politics at work here. First, the government has thrown a huge amount of effort, time and money into developing its new suite of T levels, and was hailing them as a “gold-standard” qualification before a single student had been taught a T level. It cannot afford for them to fail.

Second, the mood music in government is that too many young people end up in higher education on courses that don’t lead to well-paid jobs, and are consequently unable ever to pay back their student loans. Meanwhile, employers complain about skills shortages. 

Thus, there is an attraction in directing more young people into technical routes, which addresses both issues in a single stroke.

Now, there’s nothing wrong in principle with T levels. But they are very different from applied generals. T levels are big, specialised two-year courses, designed to match skill requirements in various sectors with a whopping requirement for an industry placement of at least 45 days

If you are the sort of young person who has a very clear idea, at the age of 16, of the career path you want to follow, then these are great courses for you. Inconveniently, many 16-year-olds don’t know exactly what they want to do with the rest of their lives. 

The beauty of applied generals, therefore, is their flexibility. They provide a good vocational grounding for future careers as well as a route to higher education, they can be combined with A levels, and students can change direction if they later change their minds. 

They often benefit students who are not academic high-flyers, and disadvantaged students who face many more challenges than their middle-class peers. In effect, they operate as an important engine of social mobility, helping young people who may not do so otherwise to achieve.

Indeed, the government’s own impact assessment on its planned changes found that “students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to take qualifications that could have their funding approval removed”.

Taking a mixture of academic and vocational qualifications

So, it would actually make most sense to have three options available - A levels, applied generals and T levels - and allow students to choose which works best for them. This would include being able to take a mixture of academic and vocational qualifications, if that’s what will set them up most effectively for future success. 

The trouble for the government is that leaving it to the market to decide may mean that T levels would remain a relatively niche qualification, with small numbers of students taking them. And, having decided that T levels are a transformative policy, it needs large numbers of students taking them: the 200,000 or so who currently take applied general qualifications, to be precise.

But the danger is very clear. It is that large numbers of young people who currently take applied general qualifications will find themselves with no alternative but to take T levels instead. They may subsequently decide that this is not for them and drop out of education altogether. It is likely that many of these young people will be from disadvantaged backgrounds.

This, then, is an extremely risky policy. It abandons a tried, tested and popular set of qualifications for a very different type of qualification, without any real sense of whether this will work for all these young people.

It is a classic case of government deciding that it knows what is best for young people when those students may have very different ideas and are at an age when they can vote with their feet.

People who work in schools and colleges are already well aware of all of the above, and can scarcely believe that the government really intends to press ahead with scrapping applied generals. 

Sadly, my sense is that the government absolutely does intend to do so. For all the feel-good rhetoric from ministers about technical and vocational qualifications, you sense they are talking about things designed for other people’s children rather than their own. That old academic/vocational snobbery is never far from the surface.

And thus, the trouble is that the government may get away with this because these qualifications are not familiar to the public to the same extent as A levels and GCSEs

Once again, the young people who lose out will be those who don’t get a glittering set of GCSEs and A levels, and a place at a top university - those young people, in other words, for whom life is more of a struggle. 

I’m writing this on the day that the prime minister is banging on again about his “levelling-up” agenda. And I’m writing this in a week when these proposed qualification reforms are far more likely to lead to levelling down. 

So, right now, could we stop the snobby doublethink, please?

Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders

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