Reading BBC Education correspondent Sean Coughlan’s hilarious, but perceptive article What parents really mean to say about exam results gave me pause for thoughts amidst the headlines around the publication of this year’s GCSE results. Ranging from the faintly damming, ‘You tried your hardest’, to the consolatory ‘have you seen the car the plumber drives?’, it neatly highlights that while policy makers, researchers and others working in education might analyse percentages, crunch numbers and draw inferences from the statistics, the issue of exams and grades is a very human one.

I’m sure we can all remember how, as a teenager, those small capital letters assumed a much greater magnitude, seemingly dictating the whole course of our life. From a distance of a couple of decades it looks far less significant, but in reality for many young people, performance at school and the qualifications they achieve do influence the direction of their work lives, career paths and earning capacity.

Shortly before the results were announced, Edge was approached by a journalist at a national newspaper asking for views and information about alternatives to A-levels for a feature entitled, What next after GCSEs? A guide to apprenticeships, BTECs and NVQs.  It is hugely welcome that vocational routes are receiving more attention in the media and being increasingly recognised as valuable pathways to successful and rewarding careers. The key word I think is ‘alternative’ and recognising that BTECs, apprenticeships and other routes are not ‘fall back’ positions for students who haven’t made their grade, but viable first-choice options for students of all abilities.

Not only has there been an increase in the number of students studying BTECs, but while the number of A-level students getting ABB grades has fallen, the number of BTEC students achieving the equivalent, has risen. Universities are beginning to fully recognise the value of a BTEC qualification.

Research recently published by the independent think-tank the Social Market Foundation bears out the emerging picture that BTECs are increasingly not just routes into a profession, but becoming a passport to higher education. It seems the barriers between academic and vocational qualifications might finally be breaking down and the received wisdom that the latter is ‘second-best’ is changing.

Almost one in four students entering university now has a BTEC qualification – that’s double the number in 2008. While there has been a big increase overall in the number of students securing university places with a combination of A-levels and BTECs, it seems they offer the greatest benefit to those from low socio-economic  groups.

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The SMF report says that between 2008 and 2015, the number of students from the most disadvantaged backgrounds with A-levels entering university increased by just 19%. For students with BTECs that figure rose to 116% and for students who had a combination of the two, entry to higher education increased by 340%, albeit from a lower base.

Edge supports the expanding network of university technical colleges (UTCs) which offer the opportunity to study a core academic curriculum alongside technical and practical subjects such as engineering, design and technology and computing.  I was delighted to read the story of a UTC student who was passionate about two things – engineering and the Royal Navy.

Ashley had been a sea cadet from the age of ten. His plan was to qualify as an engineer and then join the Navy and his A-levels in maths and physics and his BTEC qualification were his passport. As it turned out, Ashley decided not to go to university, but join the Royal Navy as an apprentice engineer under a new programme especially designed for UTC students. Because they already have the practical experience via their vocational qualifications, the Royal Navy say they will be qualified marine engineers two or three years quicker than students from mainstream schools.

Of course employers have often been ahead of Higher Education institutions in recognising the value of practical and technical qualifications, but hopefully now these prejudices can fall away across the board, providing valuable routes to success and social mobility through a variety of alternative and equally-valued pathways. 

Olly Newton, Director of Policy and Research, The Edge Foundation

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