When it comes to T levels – the government’s latest attempt to shape a high-status technical qualification – ministers certainly haven’t been short of big, bold claims.
Here is what prime minister Theresa May said in a press release last May: “We’re making the most significant reform to advanced technical education in 70 years to ensure young people have gold-standard qualifications open to them, whichever route they choose.”
And here’s what education secretary Damian Hinds said in the same press release: “T levels represent a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform technical education in this country so we can rival the world’s best-performing systems.”
Admittedly, there was something of a misstep when apprenticeship and skills minister Anne Milton told the Commons Education Select Committee that she would advise her children to “leave it a year” before starting a new qualification like T levels.
But, otherwise, the language has been one of unrelenting hyperbole.
And as some of us wincingly remember, from the not-yet-forgotten 14-19 diploma debacle, the problem with giving any policy such a build-up is the sense of humiliation if it then goes wrong.
All of this then may explain why a consultation launched last week appears to be aimed at getting rid of applied general qualifications, the most well-known of which are BTECs.
The danger of scrapping BTECs
For the uninitiated, these are popular vocational qualifications taken by more than 200,000 students each year and recognised by universities and employers.
Does the Department for Education perhaps feel that T levels will have a better chance of success if applied generals are gently cleared out of the way?
The DfE press release seems fair enough on first reading. It says that the aim of the consultation is to "streamline and boost the quality of education on offer". Who could possibly disagree with that?
But we quickly find that it is specifically consulting on “not providing public funding for qualifications for 16- to 19-year-olds that overlap with T levels or A levels”
And since the press release specifically mentions that applied general qualifications are being reviewed, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the writing is on the proverbial wall. Listen carefully and you’ll hear a death-knell sounding.
The consultation document then loses no time in putting the boot into applied generals.
We are told that many students entering university with applied generals “are lower-achieving in comparison to students who gain a place at university through A levels, and are more likely to drop out”.
It continues: “We want to understand the role of applied general and other qualifications in supporting progression to successful outcomes and whether, in some cases, students would be better served by taking T levels, a level 3 apprenticeship or A levels.”
Two points on this.
The first is that applied generals have only recently been beefed up so that students are better prepared for university. At the very least, let’s see how that goes.
The second is that applied generals have been crucial in widening university participation, a cornerstone of the effort to improve social mobility.
And maybe the universities also have a responsibility here to ensure that these students are on appropriate courses and are sufficiently supported. Social mobility doesn’t happen by magic.
There is a lot to be said in favour of T levels, of course, and none of this is intended to rain on this policy’s shimmering parade. A new set of high-quality vocational qualifications which will equip young people with the skills that industry needs is undoubtedly a good idea in a country that has long talked of parity of esteem between academic and technical routes and consistently failed to deliver.
But we must surely recognise that for all the talk of these being “gold-standard” qualifications, we just don’t know how well they will work in practice. Recent history urges caution.
Applied general qualifications are established and recognised, and they enable thousands of young people to access university education or employment. Let’s be careful about wilfully dismantling one of education’s quiet success stories.
If all this is beginning to ring alarm bells, let’s hope they are also heard in the DfE.
Because at the moment we are in danger of sacrificing a perfectly good set of qualifications which widen university participation for the sake of a new qualification that’s very much untried and very much untested.
T levels will be a success if students see their value and are eager to take them for the opportunities they offer, the life-enhancing experiences they could bring. That’s not the same as serving them up as the only game in town.
Geoff Barton is general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders