With the policy on defunding BTECs causing such confusion and controversy, Kevin Gilmartin clarifies the situation around the immediate future of Level 3 vocational qualifications in the sixth form.
In April 2022, Nadhim Zahawi, the then education minister, wrote to the House of Lords stating that “only a small proportion” of BTECs were going to be defunded under the government’s plans to persuade young people to take a T level qualification instead. A year later, the government’s latest policy guidelines mean that this ‘small proportion’ has instead become the ‘vast majority’. And even the ones that will remain will no longer be BTECs – there will be brand new qualifications covering vocational education in the sixth form phase. By 2026, BTECs will have departed from our educational landscape forever.
To gain clarity over what the new landscape will look like it is best to consider the reforms in three stages.
Stage one: The immediate past
The first part of the reform process was the removal of ‘low or no’ enrolments. About 5,500 qualifications were removed from public funding during this stage, for students finishing in summer 2022. Obscure qualifications such as Preparation for Trowel Operations and Preparation for Wood Operations disappeared from our landscape and the sector was generally unbothered by this ‘housekeeping’ exercise.
Stage two: The present
The second stage could be referred to as the ‘content overlap’ stage. Qualifications with content deemed to overlap with an A level or a T level will be defunded. By ‘overlap’, the government means not only similarity of subject content, but also similarity of destination, that is, progressing to university or employment in a similar subject or occupational area. A series of lists of qualifications for defunding were published in 2022 and 2023 along with the appeals process for awarding bodies to argue their case against defunding. A list just before Easter 2023 included 106 qualifications that will have funding removed from 1 August 2024. This means that the last starts on these qualifications will be September this year. These qualifications are deemed to overlap with one of the first three T levels that started in September 2020 – in Education and Early Years, Digital, or Construction/ Built Environment or on one of the seven T levels that started in wave two in September 2021. Popular qualifications in areas such as IT and childcare appeared on the list.
A further list was published in late May 2023 with 92 qualifications that have been assessed to overlap with wave three T levels i.e. in business and administration, engineering and manufacturing, and finance and accounting. Subject to the appeals process, they will have 16-to-19 funding approval withdrawn for new starts from 1 August 2025, which means that the last starts will be in September 2024. Surprisingly the most popular BTECs of all, in business-related areas, do not appear on the list, which means that last starts on these will most likely be in September 2025.
Stage three: The future
For about three years (2019–22), the government and the education sector have had a series of to-ing and fro-ing over consultations on what would and wouldn’t be defunded. The #ProtectStudentChoice campaign (www.protectstudentchoice.org), of which ASCL is a partner, was highly influential in these discussions and was instrumental in forcing the clarification from Nadhim Zahawi on the percentage of qualifications to be defunded. However, in January this year the DfE published its policy bombshell, advocating a wholly new landscape from 2025 onwards. In effect, anything that is not an A level or T level will disappear. New qualifications, to be known as Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs) or Alternative Technical Qualifications (ATQs) will be introduced. But the subject areas to be allowed have been clearly stipulated in advance. This is a heavily prescriptive policy, which means that only certain subject areas will be allowed to be developed by the awarding bodies (for example, Pearson, City & Guilds, and OCR).
The awarding bodies must apply to offer their version of an AAQ or ATQ. However, they will be limited to one of three subject areas for large qualifications (equivalent in size to two or three A levels) in sports, performing arts or craft areas.
In the single A level size-equivalent qualification there will only be seven or eight areas allowed: science/engineering, IT/computing, sports, art/craft/design, music/ creative arts, media (creative/ digital), uniformed services, and health and social care. Only one of these new single AAQs will be allowed to be taken with two A levels, unless in exceptional circumstances.
The implications of this policy are far-reaching for young people and for schools and colleges. More than 100,000 young people receive a BTEC grade every year – that translates into 250,000 students studying one or more Applied General Qualification (AGQ) at any one time. Currently there are just 10,000 T level students. Even the most optimistic DfE official must struggle to believe that those numbers can scale up over the next three years.
It becomes even more challenging when we remember that every single young person taking a T level has to have a high-quality 45-day (315-hour) industry placement with a local firm which specialises in that occupational area. If there is no local firm available, then there is no T level. The obvious danger of course is that if a student cannot do a T level because there is no industry placement available, it may now be impossible to take an alternative such as a BTEC instead. This could result in more students looking to do an apprenticeship (but of course the local employers may not be there), swathes more students begrudgingly doing A levels, or, alarmingly, thousands more Not in Education, Employment, or Training (NEETs).
And what about the schools and colleges that presently offer AGQs for their sixth form students? Some will be able to change their vocational offer to T levels (but only if they have cracked the local employers conundrum and recruited new technical specialist teachers). Many heads though will recognise that their school cannot run T levels, that A levels do not suit their students or that one or two groups of potential T level students will not make their sixth form viable. Many schools currently cross-subsidise their sixth form anyway from 11–16 funding. This could sound the death knell for some school sixth forms. ASCL is continuously campaigning to try to make the government see sense. T levels are a very useful addition to our sixth form educational landscape – the bonfire of BTECs is not.
ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist