Why BTECs should not be replaced by T levels

BTECs are popular and serve a different purpose to T levels - both should exist together, say two college principals

Jatinder Sharma and Ali Foss

BTECs vs T levels: The two qualifications complement each other, argue two college principals

This year, BTEC results day was a real celebration for post-16 learners up and down the country. Thousands received their level 3 qualifications and will now take those BTECs with them to the next stage of their lives: some will head off to further study, including university, others will go into the workplace – armed with valuable vocational and work-place skills learned during their studies. We send them all our best wishes, and strongly believe that they are now well placed to succeed in whatever they choose to do.

It was heartening to see such a broad range of media coverage of the day. We’re used to being overshadowed by A-level results day, despite the fact that nearly a quarter of a million learners were awarded BTECs this year.

Background: T levels more academic than expected, says provider

Opinion: Why BTECs have a role to play alongside T levels

News: BTECs: Entries rise despite doubts over future

Finally, we’re seeing a wider media recognition that A levels aren’t for everyone, and that for many students, BTECs and other vocational qualifications represent the best progression path for them. Without these qualifications, many simply would not make the progress needed to succeed.

T levels: the end of BTECs?

That’s why, amid all the celebrations, we really hope that these celebrations continue in future years.

The Department for Education has just finished the first stage of its consultation on the future landscape for level 2 and 3 technical qualifications, ahead of the introduction of T levels next September.

We are deeply concerned that, in a commendable effort to focus on high-quality technical education, the government may be preparing to sweep away a large number of existing qualifications, like BTECs, in the mistaken belief that the new T-level qualifications present an improved but otherwise like-for-like replacement.

T levels aren't not for everyone 

We do support T levels. Many colleges are preparing to offer them in the near future and we like the way in which they have been developed in consultation with the sector. For some young people, who know exactly what field they want to work in, a T level will be the right option for them.

But we have concerns about the way in which they will operate in practice. For many current BTEC and vocational students, a T level will be impossible to study. The requirement of work experience, while absolutely right in principle, will be a challenge to deliver in some areas, given the need for employers to offer such a large volume of placements.

The size of the qualification also means that many of our students won’t be able to combine study with part-time work – for some of them, that is the only way they can continue in any form of learning.

Adult education and BTECs

It is easy to forget that many of the learners at FE colleges are adults, with financial obligations and children to provide for. Adult learners are dedicated and ambitious – that is why they have gone back to college to upskill – but there is no realistic possibility that working mums and dads will be able to do a minimum of 45 days unpaid work to secure a qualification.

That’s why we’ve been making the argument for a while now, including to the government and to our local MPs, that the introduction of T levels ought not to come at the expense of BTECs and other applied general qualifications.

T levels and applied generals serve two different – but complementary – purposes. A modern, choice-led education system for our post-16 learners ought to be able to offer both, as well as the academic route of A levels, and apprenticeships.

So we urge the new secretary of state, Gavin Williamson, to continue to celebrate the achievements of BTECs and other vocational qualifications, and to recognise that for nearly a quarter of a million learners in the UK, BTECs and applied generals are the best route to progress in life.

We also ask him to listen to the overwhelming feedback from the sector – from the government’s own qualifications regulator, Ofqual, as well as from the Association of Colleges, the Sixth Form Colleges Association, and the Association of School and College Leaders, as well as the voices from principals such as ourselves – and not make last month’s celebrations one of the last BTEC results days.

Jatinder Sharma OBE is the principal and chief executive at Walsall College and Ali Foss is the principal at Queen Mary’s College, Basingstoke 

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Jatinder Sharma and Ali Foss

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