The current debate about protecting student choice in the face of proposals to remove many of the existing Btec qualifications is a highly emotive one but is perhaps focused on only part of the story.
In the last few weeks, there has been much discussion, and no shortage of anger, directed at the outcomes of the government’s review into level 3 qualifications. The widely reported upshot of this is the impact on the existing applied general qualifications, specifically the Btecs.
The main concern centres around the removal of these qualifications but what we should also be talking about is whether the alternatives are fit for purpose. In theory, we shouldn’t get hung up on change, providing change leads to better quality and outcomes. Removing Btecs should not be an issue if this leads to progress and improvement in our current education and skills system.
Lord Baker: Scrapping Btecs 'an act of vandalism'
The issue is that it is too early to say whether T levels are indeed the right qualifications to improve technical education and pathways into good career opportunities. As many others have rightly pointed out – it’s hard to call something a “gold standard” when not a single student has completed one yet. On the face of it, many of the T level routes do look like a promising option for young people. At the Trafford College Group, we will be delivering the T levels in building services, digital and education from this September and believe these will offer a highly credible and viable alternative to some of the other qualifications available in these areas.
However, from a personal point of view, the jury is out on some of the other routes. We won’t be offering the T level in on-site construction as most students following the occupational areas within this route do so through high-quality Level 2 provision and then progressing into employment, often via an apprenticeship. I am not sure what need a quasi-academic qualification at level 3 fulfils for these occupations. I have the same reservations regarding the routes in hair and beauty and hospitality and catering. In these sectors, there are already well-established qualifications and routes into employment. Scrapping them in favour of a qualification that satisfies a nice, neat “key stage 5” box seems counterintuitive.
The current skills system
Where there are already good routes into employment through the current skills system, we should be looking to retain these, rather than replacing them with a “one size fits all” solution. We could end up losing many existing and respected routes to industry in sectors like beauty, construction and hospitality through the introduction of T levels.
This leads me to outline some of the other issues with the principles of T levels. This government have rightly identified the need to focus on technical education and skills to try and attempt once and for all to challenge the notion that educational and career success in this country relies on doing A levels at a school sixth form and then progressing onto university. Why the solution to this is to then introduce a qualification that in part suspiciously resembles an A level I have no idea. Comments about simplifying the skills system are often made, but this is a complex area and there is a real danger that T levels will not meet the needs of all sectors or all students wishing to follow a technical route into employment.
I agree that where there is an obvious overlap between a T level and the alternative, existing level 3 then this should in principle lead to a defunding of the latter. What we need to ensure, however, is that there are no gaps in provision as a result of this. Some sectors currently have no T level route and some sectors would arguably be better served by the existing offer.
I also fully recognise the concerns about social mobility and access to university. However, as I said at the start, this is only part of the story. What we seem most concerned about at the moment is protecting student choice in terms of routes into university, therefore reinforcing the notion that university is the only path to success, when surely this whole debate should also be about getting the right routes into successful careers through high-quality technical education. I am not yet sure the current direction of travel will address that.