Exclusive: BTECs 'very important', insists Williamson

But future of applied generals still uncertain, with T levels the education secretary's 'primary focus'

Julia Belgutay and Dave Speck

T levels will be the focus of level 3 education as the government seeks to drive standards, says Gavin Williamson

BTECs have "an important value", education secretary Gavin Williamson has insisted – although T levels will be his "primary focus".

In an exclusive interview with Tes, Mr Williamson was non-committal on the future of BTECs and other applied general qualifications (AGQs).

AGQs are the main focus of a review of qualifications at level 3 and below, with the Department for Education still to decide which post-16 qualifications it will fund for young people in colleges and sixth forms, alongside the "gold standard" A levels, apprenticeships and T levels, due to be introduced in 2020.

Mr Williamson told Tes: "BTECs are a very important part of learning, but the primary focus is increasingly going to be on T levels, and we’re going to continue to make sure that we drive the standards, and that more and more children and young adults are achieving a level 3 in terms of their education.”

More news: BTECs: Entries rise despite doubts over future

Quick read: Funding axed for more than 160 level 3 qualifications

Opinion: T levels: distinction will have same Ucas points as 3As

Weeding out 'poor-quality' qualifications

Following the first of two government consultations, it was announced in July that 163 qualifications would no longer be funded from August 2020. The list included 76 old-style BTECs and was part of a crackdown on "poor-quality post-16 qualifications" that overlapped with other options.

The government also said it would stop any new qualifications at level 3 and below from getting approval for funding from 2020, to "avoid adding to the already confusing and complicated system of over 12,000 qualifications already available at these levels".

The second consultation on the future of the remaining BTECs and AGQs is expected to take place later this year.

'Weaknesses' in the vocational sector

Mr Williamson acknowledged that a lack of consistency had weakened the status of vocational qualifications.

“I think BTECs have an important value," he said. "If you look at A levels, which were introduced over 50 years ago, you have seen an evolution in what A levels do, but there has been a level of consistency […] and that has been one of the weaknesses we’ve had in the vocational sector. I believe that with the introduction of T levels – giving them the true equivalence to A levels – this is going to be vital in the regeneration of this sector.”

He added: “I’m going to be completely blunt and say that I want to be driving standards higher and higher. I’m the first education secretary in quite a while who has actually delivered, already, £400 million into the 16-19 sector plus an extra £100 million to make sure we cover our pensions.”

Driving attainment forward

Earlier this week, the chancellor Sajid Javid confirmed there would be an additional £400 million in funding for colleges and sixth forms – previously trailed on Saturday. Over the weekend, the government also said there would be £100 million provided in 2020-21 to support colleges in dealing with increased pension costs.

Mr Williamson said it was for providers of 16 to 19 education “to decide how best they want to be able to spend it”.

"We want to make sure we get the investment in terms of staff," he added. "Some of that money is going to be targeted towards making sure they have the right type of staff in order to deliver T levels and we want a real focus to be on level 3 qualification. Part of the announcement of the funding was to drive that forward, but the other element of that was to make sure people can get their English and maths, and within that 16-19 environment if they didn’t quite get what they were hoping for aged 16.”

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Julia Belgutay and Dave Speck

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