One of the challenges with reform is that it can undermine the good that already exists. For example, there is near-universal agreement that we need to get better at delivering vocational education to young people and our communities across the country.
From the factory floor to the boardroom, everyone agrees that we are not good enough at generating the kind of skills necessary for work and life in future decades.
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The coming introduction of T levels is good news. They will provide rigour and focus. But there is a problem. Along with the bathwater, we risk throwing out the baby; and the baby in this case is the BTEC.
These are not qualifications that politicians are familiar with, in most cases. But in schools and colleges up and down the country, they are well regarded options, taken by over one million people a year.
And they are respected. Employers know and trust them. The employers I have worked with over several decades - as together we developed the successful new generation of university technical colleges - admire BTEC students and the way that BTECs integrate classroom learning with the world of work. People with a BTEC gain real practical experience in the workplace and skills that will be increasingly required for the future of work, including the capability to grow their career within an organisation and adapt their career in a changing economy. That is why almost two-thirds of medium-sized businesses in this country have hired one or more BTEC graduates in the last five years.
BTECs: 'Rigorous, dependable qualifications'
Every single university in England - bar one, Imperial College London - accepts them as rigorous, dependable qualifications assessing suitability for further study. More than a quarter of young people going to university last year did so with a BTEC as part of their qualifications. They have been the driver behind the increased access to higher education which is providing this country with the higher level skills we need.
They can be taken part-time, making them ideal for those returning to the workforce after parenthood, for those with caring responsibilities, or people seeking to raise their skill level. In a world where technological change is accelerating, and up to ten million adults will need to retrain in the next ten to twenty years, the ability to learn while also making a living will be essential.
In contrast, T levels are designed in one size; equivalent to three A levels, and not available to those wanting to retrain. A graduating T level student may be brilliantly prepared for a career in their chosen occupation. But in a world of work where change will increasingly be the only constant, this is unlikely to be their path for life. Whilst some know their true calling from a young age, we also know that the overwhelming majority of students do not want to make fundamental choices about which occupation they wish to pursue while most of them are in the final year of GCSEs and aged just 15.
Ensuring BTECs’ survival, alongside other Applied General qualifications, would give young people continued access to three broad routes at 16; the A level academic pathway; a career-focussed BTEC pathway leaving options for both further study or heading straight into a career at 18; and a more specialised technical pathway based on T levels.
We need to preserve choice, not force all pupils to narrow their plans drastically at such a young age. One of the abiding critiques of English education for decades has been that the A level “gold standard” closed off choices, and limited horizons, far too early in a student’s career. We should not repeat this to the exclusion of other pathways and options. For some, T levels will be the right path. But others will want to keep their options open with the kind of inbuilt flexibility and credibility that BTECs offer.
Since Margaret Thatcher and Keith Joseph first introduced the BTEC, as a way of marrying the skills that employers want into the school system, the BTEC has been a success. As Baroness Wolf recently wrote, out of all qualification reforms of the last 30 years, only BTEC and GCSE have “been genuinely successful”. That was because “they responded to a broad and irreversible change in aspirations, for progress to further and higher education, and therefore for delayed specialisation and selection”.
T levels have great potential to be a new route for high quality technical education, and there is an opportunity to more closely align them to apprenticeships as a progression route for young people. But if they are to succeed, then we must ensure that their introduction is done in a way that is phased and careful.
We must not destroy what’s already working in our current system - BTECs - which provide people with a pathway to higher education and career preparation, and deliver the knowledge and skills that employers want for careers today and in the future.
Lord Baker of Dorking is a former educstion secretary. He is writing in a personal capacity