Editorial - BTEC Firsts second rate? Then fix them

27th August 2010 at 01:00
Scorn heaped on qualification's success turns blind eye to flawed GCSE system

Britain, rejoice! The academic-vocational divide is dead. Finally, the snobberies against work-based subjects have been vanquished. Why else has the number of teenagers registering to do BTEC Firsts more than doubled in the last two years? Surely it wasn't a cynical attempt by the schools to boost their league table positions? Was it?

The speed of that BTEC's rise, revealed today, is staggering (pages 14-15). More young people this year will have gained a GCSE-equivalent grade C+ through a BTEC First than by taking GCSEs in English and maths combined. If the increase continues at this rate, we all may soon end up doing a BTEC (though a similar logic suggests that by 2019 a third of the world's population will be Elvis impersonators).

The qualification's success would be more encouraging if it wasn't for the sneaking suspicion about schools' motives. The rush towards BTECs and OCR Nationals will seem familiar to those who recall how the GNVQ in ICT rocketed in popularity after the pioneering Thomas Telford School in Shropshire demonstrated it could help get 100 per cent of pupils past the old GCSE targets.

Even teacher fans of the BTEC admit, quietly, that the work involved is not the equivalent of four GCSEs. And pupils don't need an A* in maths to spot that the vocational course takes up no more of their timetable than two GCSEs.

This might seem like ammunition for the think-tank Civitas, which wants to label BTEC a "bogus" qualification and kill it. But that would be wrong.

Many teachers have found the BTEC a practical course which has succeeded in helping students who would otherwise have left school with no qualifications, or just Ds and Es at GCSE. Figuring out how to help those teenagers should be the priority for the national debate about qualifications, not helping a small group of Oxbridge admissions tutors. Judged by the Government's pass target, the GCSE system is not working for around half our teenagers. The Diploma is not yet sufficiently attractive, and whatever the answer is, it's not going to be "make them do more GCSEs".

If BTECs are inadequate preparation for the workplace, as some critics claim, the sector skills councils should fix them. The "dragons" on BBC's Dragons' Den do not always make the right calls, but more business leaders should follow Peter Jones, who has thrown his support behind BTECs in enterprise and entrepreneurship (page 32).

Of course, the BTEC First's equivalency to four GCSEs is questionable, and pupils should not be taking any course purely to help their schools' ranking. But when the Government reviews the curriculum it must resist its natural inclination to wipe out BTECs. Comparing the value of different qualifications is pointless, even between A-level subjects. What matters is their relevance to what a student plans to do next - and employers and education institutions care more about that than a qualification's abstract point value.

Gerard Kelly is away.

Michael Shaw, Opinion editor. E michael.shaw@tes.co.uk.

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