Why the battle to save BTECs must be won

BTECs are under threat – losing them would hinder social mobility and economic productivity, warns James Kewin

James Kewin

The battle to save BTECs must be won, says James Kewin, of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

Next Monday was the deadline for responding to the first stage of the Department for Education’s consultation on “post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below in England” – better known to those outside Sanctuary Buildings as “the review of BTECs”.

When reading the consultation document, I was reminded of the scene in Blackadder Goes Forth when our eponymous hero’s hopes of a fair trial for shooting (and then eating) General Melchett’s beloved pigeon, Speckled Jim, are brought to an abrupt end – when Melchett himself arrives in court to judge proceedings. “Hand me the black cap,” he says to one of the clerks as the trial begins. “I’ll be needing that.” 

In a similar fashion, there is a real concern in the sixth-form sector that the government has already made up its mind to dispatch BTECs (or applied general qualifications, as we must remember to call them – other awarding bodies are available).

Background: Scrapping BTECs could create 'barrier', says Ofqual

Opinion: 'Why GCSEs won't be scrapped – but BTECs could be'

More news: Parents ‘not comfortable’ on post-16 options

What does 'gold standard' mean?

The Sainsbury vision of choosing an academic or technical option at the age of 16 has been redefined as choosing from an A level or a T level for those pursuing classroom-based study. Both are described in the consultation document as “gold standard” qualifications. Leaving aside the wisdom of describing a qualification that does not yet exist as being “gold standard”, it sends out the clear message that all other qualifications will be, at best, silver or bronze. This is not a sound basis on which to conduct an impartial consultation.

Our members have seen how applied general qualifications (AGQs) have transformed the life chances of hundreds of thousands of young people and made a huge contribution to both social mobility and economic growth. They are united in the view that AGQs – in their new, more rigorous format – should sit alongside T levels and A levels as the “qualifications of choice for 16- to 19-year-olds taking level 3 classroom-based qualifications”.

For some young people, an A level or a T level will not be the most appropriate route to support progression to higher levels of study or skilled employment. Although AGQs are available in similar subjects, they are a different type of qualification that provide a different type of educational experience. Many young people will require an alternative pathway to that offered by an A level or T level-only programme, even if their final destination is ultimately the same. 

The consultation document appears to suggest that the “varying amounts of flexibility” in the current system is not a good thing. We think it is. A levels, AGQs or a combination of the two provide the sort of general education that equips young people well for the workplace or higher education. AGQs develop the sort of practical skills (e.g., presentations, teamwork, project-based work) that are highly valued by universities and employers and, when combined with A levels, can prove to be powerfully effective (e.g., an A level in maths taken alongside AGQs in science, computing or engineering).

BTECs: 'Spurious' comparisons

The consultation tells us that students that enter university with applied general qualifications are more likely to drop out than students with A levels. This is a spurious comparison – any meaningful analysis of destinations must consider a much wider range of variables (particularly prior attainment and levels of disadvantage). In fairness, the consultation asks what evidence should be used in determining if qualifications are delivering successful outcomes and we will use data from the Sixth Form Colleges Association’s Six Dimensions project to do just that. 

Ultimately, this consultation is really about T levels. We welcome the introduction of T levels and believe it is right that (like A levels and AGQs) technical qualifications undergo a process of reform. It is also right that the range of qualifications available at level 3 is subject to a thorough review. But even when T levels are fully rolled out, there will be a range of practical reasons why some young people will be unwilling or unable to pursue this pathway (e.g., availability of work placements, time commitment) and a range of educational reasons why an AGQ pathway would be more appropriate (e.g., curriculum breadth, ability to combine with A levels).

T levels should succeed on their own merits, not because a group of adjacent qualifications have been reduced or removed. This would be disastrous for social mobility and put a serious dent in economic productivity. The consultation is gathering views on the general principles that should underpin the qualification reform process. But we believe it is more important to make a clear, robust and unambiguous case for applied general qualifications to sit alongside T levels and A levels in the future qualification landscape. 

Captain Blackadder was saved from the firing squad at the very last minute. If we are to save applied general qualifications from a similar fate, we must go much further than drafting a set of general policy principles. This is a battle that must be won, and we should view this consultation as the first stage in the sector’s collective cunning plan to do just that.

James Kewin is deputy chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

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