The government has announced a further pruning of vocational and technical education. According to the DfE, there are some 12 000 different qualifications – many of which, it argues have few or no students. In this respect the decision to cull almost half of them, could as the Department claims, represent an attempt to bring more coherence to the system. But is there a wider political agenda and if so, what is the future for BTEC qualifications?
The government is about to introduce T-levels – new ‘middle’ qualifications that sit between A-levels and apprenticeships. T-levels, the first three are due to start in September, have not had a good press. There are concerns about funding levels and a lack of consultation over how they are being introduced. Neither have they been able to attract serious interest from employers. But though already having been overhauled and made to look more like A-levels, the government intends to review BTECs further. Large numbers of 16-18 year olds remaining on BTECs (there are currently around 200 000 completing level 3 courses) might jeopardise the shaky T’s still more !
Yet withdrawing support for BTECs could be a colossal gamble – and one that might quickly backfire. Despite the introduction of new vocational qualifications – GNVQs by the Tories at the end of the 1990s and then Labour’s 14-19 Diplomas, BTECs have continued to grow in popularity (numbers have tripled since 2005) and to provide an alternative route to university – 1 in 5 applicants enter HE with BTEC qualifications while another 10% combine them with an A-level ( apprenticeship and vocational students make up 1 in 3.) Evidence shows BTEC students come from more working/lower middle class origins, are more ethnically diverse and less likely to be from London and the Home Counties. Unlike T-levels which are intended to be organised through a network of FE colleges on a regional basis, BTECs are much easier to deliver, with most school sixth -forms having at least one.
BTEC are awarded through Edexcel – owned by the Pearson conglomerate, which rather ironically, because of its increasing influence within education may be able to persuade government that BTECs should continue to sit alongside T-levels. But in opposition to the Tory government’s rigid post-16 tripartite plan that can only reduce student choice and make curriculum reform more difficult, many progressives will also want to defend them.