#ProtectStudentChoice - A cross-party group of 118 MPs and peers has written to the recently-appointed Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi urging him to make an “early reassessment” of the Department for Education’s plan to remove funding for the vast majority of applied general qualifications such as BTECs.

The letter was sent to support the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, a coalition of 21 organisations that represent and support students and staff in schools, colleges and universities. 

Signatories include three former secretaries of state for education (Lord Baker of Dorking, Baroness Morris of Yardley and Lord Blunkett), the current shadow secretary of state for education Kate Green and Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Daisy Cooper. 

In July, the Department confirmed plans to introduce a twin-track system of A levels and T levels (a new suite of technical qualifications), where most young people pursue one of these qualifications at the age of 16. As a result, funding for most BTEC qualifications will be removed. 

In their letter to the Education Secretary, the MPs and peers say this new system “will leave many students without a viable pathway after their GCSEs, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds” and report concerns from the education sector that “removing the vast majority of BTECs will lead to students taking courses that do not meet their needs, or dropping out of education altogether”.

The parliamentarians welcome the introduction of T levels but say that “it is not necessary to remove applied general qualifications to make T levels a success” and that it is “perfectly possible for both to co-exist with A levels in the future qualifications landscape”.

Under current proposals, larger BTEC qualifications (equivalent in size to 2 or 3 A levels) will be scrapped if the government deems they “overlap” with A levels or T levels. But the MPs and peers call for the option to study BTECs to be retained as they “are a different type of qualification that provide a different type of educational experience - one that combines the development of skills with academic learning”.

The letter concludes by urging the Secretary of State to “recalibrate” plans to move to a two-route model of A levels and T levels and asks for an assurance that “students will continue to have the choice to study a wide range of applied general qualifications in the future”.

Commenting on the letter:

Lord Baker of Dorking said:

“The Government’s plan to eliminate most BTECs - including extended diplomas - will be disastrous for young people and disastrous for employers. These qualifications are well established, well respected and help thousands of young people to enter higher education or the workplace each year. It is wildly unrealistic to expect them to be replaced by T levels, a qualification so new that not a single student has yet completed one. I hope the new Secretary of State will listen to the voices of the 118 parliamentarians that have signed this letter, the 21 education bodies in the Protect Student Choice campaign, and major employers like JCB that are deeply concerned by the planned cull of most BTEC qualifications”.

Rt Hon Dame Diana Johnson, MP for Kingston upon Hull North and co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for sixth form education said:

“I am delighted that so many MPs and peers have signed this important letter and shown their support for the Protect Student Choice campaign. As co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for sixth form education, I have heard widespread concern from schools and colleges about the government’s plans to scrap most BTECs. Young people in my constituency and other across England have used these qualifications to access higher education or skilled employment for many years, and removing them would be disastrous for social mobility and the levelling up agenda. We hope the new Secretary of State will listen to the concerns of parliamentary colleagues set out in this letter and reassess his plans for these qualifications”.

Bill Watkin, Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, that is co-ordinating the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign said:

“It is telling that so many MPs and peers have joined such a broad coalition of educational bodies to support the campaign to Protect Student Choice. There are few issues that could engender such strength of feeling and such commonality of purpose; the removal of BTECs represents a hammer blow for social mobility, the skills gap and the economy. It is also telling that those who campaign to Protect Student Choice welcome the introduction of T Levels and are determined to see them succeed. But T Levels and BTECs are different: they serve a different purpose for a different audience. As such, they could and should co-exist in the qualifications landscape.”

In the Department for Education’s response to the Review of post-16 Qualifications at level 3: second stage, the policy statement document reaffirms the Department’s commitment to creating two main pathways at the age of 16:

  1. an academic route where most students study A levels to progress to higher education, and
  2. a technical route where most students study T levels to progress to skilled employment. 

The response document states that, with only a small number of exceptions, “Larger academic qualifications (including applied general qualifications larger than one A level) will not be funded if they overlap with T Levels or A levels”. 

The most recent data for participation in education, training and employment in England (end of 2019) shows that 864,304 16 to 18 year olds are studying at Level 3. The majority (55%) are studying A levels only, 19% are studying applied general qualifications such as BTECs (in some cases alongside A levels) and 4% are studying technical qualifications. Because of recent changes to Department for Education performance tables, 22% of students are categorised as studying an ‘Other Level 3’ course.

We conservatively estimate that at least half of the students in this group are studying older-style applied general qualifications, which is why they feature in this category. So in total, we estimate that at least 30% of 16 to 18 year olds studying a Level 3 qualification in England are pursuing applied general qualifications such as BTECs – 259,291 young people.

The #ProtectStudentChoice letter and full list of signatories:

Dear Secretary of State,

Many congratulations on your appointment. We share your ambition to create a world class 16 to 19 education system that helps every young person to fulfil their potential.

As many young people study applied general qualifications such as BTECs, we are writing to ask that you make an early reassessment of your Department’s plans for these valuable Level 3 qualifications.

We are particularly concerned about the proposal to remove funding for the vast majority of BTECs. The plan for T levels and A levels to become the “qualifications of choice” for most young people will leave many students without a viable pathway after their GCSEs, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds; the Department for Education’s impact assessment concluded that these students had the most to lose from defunding BTECs.

School and college leaders tell us that for many young people, studying applied general qualifications will continue to be a more effective route to higher education or skilled employment than studying A levels or T levels. The recently reformed BTECs are very popular with students (more than 250,000 young people study these qualifications each year) and they are highly respected by employers and universities. There is deep concern in the education sector that removing the vast majority of BTECs will lead to students taking courses that do not meet their needs, or dropping out of education altogether.

We welcome the introduction of T levels and believe they have a valuable role to play in improving the quality of technical education. But it is not necessary to remove applied general qualifications to make T levels a success. It is perfectly possible for both to co-exist with A levels in the future qualifications landscape.

Fundamentally, BTECs are a different type of qualification that provide a different type of educational experience - one that combines the development of skills with academic learning. A decision to retain this option would be warmly welcomed by students, the education sector and employers, and would greatly benefit social mobility and the economy.

We hope you will take the opportunity to recalibrate your Department’s plan to move to a two-route model of A level and T levels and assure us that students will continue to have the choice to study a wide range of applied general qualifications in the future.

Yours sincerely, Dame Diana Johnson (Co-Chair, APPG on Sixth Form Education) Jason McCartney (Co-Chair, APPG on Sixth Form Education)

Diane Abbott Debbie Abrahams Jon Ashworth Lord Baker of Dorking Paula Barker Apsana Begum Clive Betts Bob Blackman Lord Blunkett Crispin Blunt Sir Peter Bottomley Ben Bradley Ben Bradshaw Karen Buck Ian Byrne Ruth Cadbury Dan Carden Sarah Champion Bambos Charalambous Daisy Cooper Rosie Cooper Marsha de Cordova The Baroness Cox Jon Cruddas John Cryer Judith Cummins Alex Cunningham Philip Davies Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi Jack Dromey Tim Farron Yvonne Fovargue Vicky Foxcroft Mary Kelly Foy Gill Furniss Baroness Garden of Frognal Jo Gideon Preet Gill Kate Green Margaret Greenwood Lilian Greenwood Nia Griffith Andrew Gwynne Emma Hardy Sir Mark Hendrick Wera Hobhouse Sharon Hodgson Rachel Hopkins Sir George Howarth Lord Hunt of Kings Heath Dan Jarvis Dame Diana Johnson Kim Johnson Ruth Jones Darren Jones Barbara Keeley Lord Knight of Weymouth Afzal Khan Ian Lavery Lord Layard Kim Leadbeater Emma Lewell-Buck Andrew Lewer Clive Lewis Tony Lloyd Rebecca Long-Bailey Jonathan Lord Lord Lucas Caroline Lucas Justin Madders Rachael Maskell Paul Maynard Jason McCartney Siobhain McDonagh Conor McGinn Catherine McKinnell Ian Mearns Damien Moore Layla Moran Stephen Morgan Baroness Morris of Yardley Charlotte Nichols Caroline Nokes Jesse Norman Alex Norris Sarah Olney Kate Osborne Sarah Owen Toby Perkins Jess Phillips Lucy Powell Yasmin Qureshi Angela Rayner Christina Rees Jonathan Reynolds Marie Rimmer Lloyd Russell-Moyle Naz Shah Virendra Sharma Barry Sheerman Andy Slaughter Royston Smith Alex Sobel John Spellar Lord Storey Zarah Sultana Sam Tarry Stephen Timms Karl Turner Derek Twigg Claudia Webbe Catherine West Matt Western Alan Whitehead Lord Willetts Munira Wilson William Wragg Mohammad Yasin

cc.

Rt Hon Michelle Donelan MP, Minister of State (Minister for Higher and Further Education)

Alex Burghart MP, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for Skills)

Robin Walker MP, Minister of State (Minister for School Standards)

Baroness Barran MBE, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Minister for the School System)

Rt Hon Robert Halfon MP, Chair of the Education Select Committee

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