By Kevin Gilmartin
, ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist
Does it really matter if the Secretary of State for Education promises one thing and then the government does another? Does it matter if it is actually one of the minister’s successors who breaks the promise? Does it matter even more if the promise was actually made by the minister to the House of Lords no less?
Well, this is exactly what has happened as a result of the government publishing its latest guidance on reforms to level three qualifications – or as we might more accurately refer to it – the slashing and burning of BTECs.
This new guidance, which was quietly sneaked out in early January, indicates that nearly two-thirds of the hugely popular and successful Applied General Qualifications (of which BTECs make up perhaps 80%), are going to be scrapped from 2025 and 2026.
And that government promise? It was made by Nadhim Zahawi, the education minister in April 2022, who wrote a letter to the 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. One doesn’t need to have availed of Rishi Sunak’s ambition of studying maths until 18 to know that a “small proportion” and “two-thirds” are very different amounts indeed.
The government will say that their new proposals are not about creating a binary system of A levels and T levels and that BTECs and other AGQs will remain. Yes, some will stay - but only in three subject areas for large “double or triple” qualifications (performing arts, sports and craft). And as for the ability to mix single AGQs with A levels (hugely popular at present with hundreds of thousands of students), this will only be allowed in a handful of subject areas (science, IT, art and design, music, sport and possibly health and social care). The BTEC in business - by far the most popular with students - will disappear entirely.
The implications of this policy are far-reaching, for young people and for schools and colleges themselves. Over one hundred thousand young people receive a BTEC grade every year – that translates into a quarter of a million students studying one or more AGQs at any one time. At the moment, there are just 10,000 T level students. Even the most optimistic DfE official cannot seriously believe that those numbers will scale up over the next three years. It becomes even more of a delusion 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 who specialises in that occupational area. No local firm available? Then no T level for you I’m afraid. But by the way, if you can’t do a T level because there is no industry placement available, it now seems as if you won’t be able to do an AGQ either. So presumably, the master plan is for all these students to do an apprenticeship instead, except that we’ve already established that there aren’t the local employers in the first place. Swathes more students begrudgingly doing A levels as a consequence, or just thousands upon thousands more NEETs?
And what of all the schools and colleges who 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 managed to desperately scrabble around and find willing employers for the industry placement and recruited new technical specialists to teach the stretching industry standard content). Many heads though will recognise that their school cannot run T levels, that A levels do not suit their students and that one or two groups of potential T level students will not make their sixth form viable. Many schools at the moment cross-subsidise their sixth form anyway from 11-16 funding. This sounds the death knell.
Sometimes it is hard to believe that a government is knowingly going to commit an act of educational vandalism on such a scale. Perhaps the reason for the government reneging on its promise to only defund a small proportion of BTECs is that it doesn’t understand its own proposed policy. Surely the government agenda can’t be to deliberately create more NEETS, or to intentionally close down the successful routes into university that BTECs offer, often for the more disadvantaged students?
ASCL is determined to find out why the government is pursuing this agenda and will be asking the present Secretary of State for Education, Gillian Keegan, for answers. For the sake of our schools and colleges, but more importantly for the sake of future generations of young people, we hope that she will understand that by breaking her own government’s promise, she is taking a wrecking ball to 16-19 education.
is ASCL Post-16 and Colleges Specialist