Eleven organisations including most of the teacher unions and the NUS have issued a statement warning of government plans to cut funding for vocational qualifications that overlap with the new T-levels. In particular there’s concern about the future of the tried and trusted BTEC qualifications.
Of course the old-style teacher assessed BTEC qualifications no longer exists. Students on construction courses for example, are now required to study trigonometry and Pythagoras, with new Ofqual rules ( part of Michael Gove’s ‘standards revolution’ ) requiring a minimum of 25% external assessment. BTECs are now also part of Pearson’s expanding empire. But nevertheless BTECs have remained popular. More than 200,000 16 to 18-year-olds take these courses every year, often studying in combination with an A-level.
The T-levels are a product of yet another ‘review’ of vocational education, this time by Lord Sainsbury and then launched as a ‘middle’ qualification, sitting between A-levels and apprenticeships in a 2016 White Paper. There will be 25 different T-levels by 2023. Each officially equivalent to 3 A-levels and with no real opportunity to combine other types of study. Like the vocational qualifications they seek to replace, the T levels provide ‘core’ knowledge of a particular economic sector, but they are more occupationally specific – there will even be a ‘Cultural Heritage and Visitor Attractions’ part of a Creative and Design route.
The original intention was that T-levels would be delivered in new specially designated colleges, but now it appears that all post-16 providers can apply to offer them, subject to guarantees on student numbers, having a good Ofsted report, and able to show they are financially sound (!) So, by September 2020 around 50 institutions (mostly FE colleges, one or two schools and a ‘business partnership’) had been lined up for delivery of the first three areas, Digital, Construction and Childcare. Another seven T-level routes will be rolled out the following year.
To say that T-levels, that have received a luke warm response is an understatement. Many of their critics say the specifications have not been properly prepared, others have argued they should be postponed rather than have to start ‘on line.’ The funding implications will catch many people’s attention. Starting with a significant slice of the £400 million additional funding promised to 16-19 education for 2020-21 and probably approaching £½ billion over the roll out period, goes a long way to explain why providers are not hesitating to sign up. Yet college managers and teacher trade unions remain concerned about whether budgets are adequate and whether the T-levels will be funded by diverting resources already promised to the FE sector.
There are other serious operational issues. In particular, the T’s require compulsory work placements of 45 days during the 2-year course duration, even though the shorter placements in current vocational qualifications are often difficult to arrange, because of an increased reluctance or the inability of employers to provide them.
A good general education for everyone -not separate routes.
The best way of ensuring the continued existence of BTECs is to oppose the T-levels not to welcome them as the union statement does! The statement signatories are also wrong ‘to share the government’s ambition to create a world class post-16 education system, comprising both technical and academic routes, that helps all students to fulfil their potential and meets the needs of employers’. On the contrary, the relationship between vocation qualifications and employment opportunities has been largely inverse. Rather than improving opportunities for entering the workplace and with the post-92 universities desperate to recruit, students who had not been able to secure university places via the A-level route, have found vocational qualifications provided a ‘second chance.’
Admissions data shows that 30% of HE applicants have a vocational qualification making up at least part of their application (often combined with at least one A-level). But even if, despite advanced and higher-level vocational qualifications having official ‘parity’ with academic certificates, there has been little evidence of leading universities acting on this.
Because they are mostly classroom based, it is difficult to see how vocational courses really make students ‘work ready.’ Employers know little about them and tend to recruit young people with proven academic qualifications, that’s if they recruit them at all! Also, the occupational structure continues to polarise with core/professional employment and precariat work both growing, but many ‘ middling’ jobs ( the type of employment that vocational qualifications were generally linked to) continuing to disappear. Where they do exist, employers are able to recruit from a surplus of graduates.
Rather than different routes or ‘pathways’, we should promote an alternative curriculum entitlement in the way that teacher unions and progressives used to. Different types of learning should be integrated initially through an ‘overarching’ certificate, but it is by moving towards a wider ‘common core’, that the rigid ‘vocational’ and ‘academic’ tracks will be abolished. This will make it easier for stand-alone qualifications to dissolve into a wider ‘baccalaureate’ award, allowing a good ‘general’ education for everybody.