From education to employment

In defence of the BTEC

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

It doesn’t seem so long ago that the Edge Foundation was writing about ‘the rise of the BTEC’ and how this qualification was gaining currency amongst universities on a par with A-levels.

Students are increasingly favouring a BTEC instead of or alongside A-levels, especially in subjects such as engineering.

However, if you read the headlines in several education media outlets last week, you might think I should now be heralding ‘the demise of the BTEC’.

The Department for Education has launched the first part of a two-stage consultation on the future of over 12,000 vocational qualifications at level 3 and below.

TES ran the headline, ‘BTECs in the last-chance saloon’ suggesting that BTECs are being edged out to make way for the new, shiny T-levels.

I couldn’t help but see the irony when leafing through the recruitment section of the publication, to find an advertisement placed by a 6th form college in Manchester for a teacher to teach A-level physics and BTEC science.

The tag line offered ‘an opportunity to be a catalyst for social change’; I wondered if they had read my previous article on BTECs.

With a plethora of qualifications, a range of acronyms baffling to both parents and employers and a sometimes rather questionable guarantee of quality, the rationale for taking a Marie Kondo approach to streamlining post-16 education is an appealing one.

My fear is that in a bid to make the system simpler, we close down options for young people by resting on the assumption that we can fit all students into one neat box or another; or rather into one neat route or another.

My misgivings about this consultation are two-fold:

1. Do “Gold Standard” qualifications meet the needs of education in the 21st century?

To qualify for public funding, qualifications must meet key criteria on ‘quality, purpose, necessity and progression.’ While I have little argument with skills minister Anne Milton’s new mantra in principle, I think we do need to be clear what these words mean.

A-levels, T-levels and apprenticeships are excluded from the consultation because they are, like GCSEs, considered to be ‘gold-standard’. Presumably then, GCSEs tick the ‘quality, purpose, necessity and progression’ boxes.

In February, Edge hosted the chair of the Education Select Committee, Rob Halfon, at an event in London, where he called for GCSEs to be abandoned, precisely because they do not meet the needs of education in the 21st century.

Heavy on content and reliant on rote-learning with a focus on achieving grades rather than developing skills, these qualifications belong back in the first industrial revolution, not the fourth. I would suggest that they fail in terms of ‘purpose, necessity and progression’. Is this the ‘gold standard’ that BTECs are to be measured against?

2. Have we learned nothing from the marketisation of higher education?

My second concern is with the other cornerstone of the consultation, to withhold public funding for qualifications that over-lap with A-levels and T-levels.

Damien Hinds says the government cannot, “legislate for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes… But we can improve the quality of the options out there and by raising quality, more students and parents will trust these routes.”

His statement immediately establishes a binary position between A-levels and T-levels, assumes a disparity of value and automatically ascribes a greater value to the former.

Perhaps not surprisingly for this government, the remedy is to ‘improve’ the product to give it more appeal and greater volume of consumption will confer greater status. Have we learned nothing from the marketisation of higher education?

BTECs are an already trusted route

Students and parents already trust ‘these routes’. Over 200,000 students studied for a BTEC last year. Unlike GCSEs, at their best BTECs provide an opportunity to acquire subject knowledge, the skills to apply it and relevant experience.

T-levels remain untested and subject to apprehension, not least from employers. It’s still not clear how much flexibility there will be between the A-level route and the T-level route or whether T-levels will translate into UCAS points as BTECs do now.

As the new season is upon us, I’m all for spring-cleaning our outdated qualifications cupboard, but we should be looking across the whole landscape, including GCSEs.

Our scrutiny should be focused on which qualifications offer the greatest breadth of opportunity, flexibility and which best prepare young people for careers in the 21st century workplace.

The point of de-cluttering is not just that you jettison the broken and the defunct, but that you keep, preserve and care for the things which remain relevant and work best.

Alice Barnard, Chief Executive of Edge

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