For many years and across numerous governments, there has been talk about improving the standing of technical and vocational education. The recent publication of the Skills for Jobs White Paper reiterated this government’s ambition and commitment to do just that. A laudable aim, especially as, against a backdrop of rapid change, lifelong learning will be crucial in supporting both social and economic prosperity. However, in striving for this, ministers cannot lose sight of what is working well already.
As part of this reform, the Department for Education is currently consulting on potential significant changes to qualifications at level 3 (A-level equivalent). And while Pearson supports the government’s aim to raise standards within further education, policymakers must be mindful of the consequences of disrupting and damaging the current system.
We welcome the introduction of T levels, but worry that current proposals put at risk existing high-quality qualifications that work, be they Btecs or other vocational qualifications. A number of organisations, including Ofqual, the Association of Colleges and the Sixth Form Colleges Association, have already responded and cautioned against pressing ahead too quickly, highlighting the risk of destabilising the system.
Qualifications reform: The 5,000 qualifications facing the axe
Our own response sets out the case for retaining elements of the system that serve learners and employers well, as well as enhancing the stature of vocational and technical education.
The importance of choice in the post-16 qualification system
A post-16 qualification system needs to serve multiple purposes and needs choice in qualifications to support this. A wider range of qualifications should continue to be funded alongside T levels and A levels. Current proposals will limit choice for young people. We are concerned that they will not be sufficient to provide the broad range of high-quality and useful qualifications needed in a 16-19 and adult system that works for all.
There is a strong risk of severe disruption to a system that works for students, higher education and employers. High-quality qualifications that work are at risk. Vocational qualifications, which develop broad knowledge and understanding of an industry, need to be available alongside qualifications developed to focus specifically on occupations. Work is needed to ensure choices are clearer, as opposed to removing valuable qualifications. Many of the Btec qualifications have been identified by the DfE as "high-value courses" as they lead to higher wage returns, support the Industrial Strategy, and are most likely to enable a more productive economy.
Defunding Btecs: The risk to diversity and inclusion
The narrowing and limiting of choice will have a negative impact on learners, higher education, employers and the economy. The impact assessment published with the reforms estimates that 400,400 16- to 19-year-olds, out of a total 2,738,800, take qualifications “expected no longer to be available”, so around 15 per cent. It also highlights that learners with SEN, from Asian and black ethnic backgrounds, males, and those from disadvantaged backgrounds are all more likely to be negatively affected by changes to the qualifications available in the future.
Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that a greater proportion of those entering higher education who followed the Btec route came from an ethnic minority background when compared with A levels (17 per cent Asian and 14 per cent black, and 12 per cent Asian and 5 per cent black respectively) and that a greater proportion of those entering higher education who followed the Btec route came from lower socioeconomic groups when compared with A levels (32 per cent and 17 per cent respectively).
Research undertaken by the Baker Dearing Educational Trust suggests that the reforms will harm social mobility by reducing progression from University Technical Colleges to higher technical study and higher or degree apprenticeships by as much as 40 per cent.
There is a serious risk that the proposals would reverse recent trends to widen diversity and broaden inclusion. Existing high-quality vocational qualifications, including Btecs, support a diverse range of learners, and the skills they bring to employers and the UK economy.
Ministers need to listen to the voices calling for system reform that does not risk what is already working. T levels are a welcome addition but should not be the only option for the 16-year-old not wishing to take A levels alone. We need to maintain the choice for this group between the early specialisation that T levels offer and broader, career-focused qualifications, such as Btec.
Cindy Rampersaud is the senior vice-president for Btecs and apprenticeships at Pearson