The Case Against BTECs

The Case Against BTECs
Date1st Nov 2021AuthorMike KilbrideCategoriesPolicy and News

I lead a College where about 32% of our activity is Level 3 BTEC - a proportion that has gone down in recent years, but these qualifications have long been a significant proportion of our activity, fuelled by the fact that we have, by sixth form college standards, students with lower than average incoming GCSEs. We have had great success with these, despite being amongst the very first to fully convert to the new RQF variations. On the back of this if might come as a bit of a shock that I support the government’s policy in the Level 3 Review that would see most BTECs withdrawn and those that remain being limited to a maximum of one A-Level equivalent as part of a full programme.  I have not come to this position quickly or easily; let me explain.

My main reasons are:

  • Discovery and inquiry-based learning form a crucial part of the BTEC approach.  As someone with a long background in Psychology and a particular interest in cognition I have always found this troubling. Jumping into discovery-based leaning to foster reflection and higher-level  intellect and understanding is only really appropriate for those who have a good mastery of the subject content.  In this respect the profiles of students doing BTECs are arguably those least adapted to this learning approach.  A fascinating study on this very issue was published this year by John Sweller; I would urge all to give it a quick read here.
  • The so-called “lottery of exams”!  I find this an odd inversion of what actually happens, perhaps done in order to support a position.  For me, exams are the end product of a process that has been two years in the making.  It is what is done during this period that matters; solid preparation, confidence building, and rehearsal are what allow the exams to not be a lottery.  We will all have different experiences, but in 20 years as a classroom teacher I did not see one example where a student I taught had a catastrophic exam experience.  That is not to say it does not happen, but rather than build an educational programme on the basis that this might happen, let us focus on the depth and detail of the work we do that allows the exam to simply be the end product of a well-drilled process.
  • This next point is going to be controversial: on the whole I believe that BTECs are too easy.  I do not mean they are not demanding, but it seems that it is the process that imposes too much of the demand, against what should impose the demand - the content.  I think this is true for teachers of BTEC, who work extremely hard managing lengthy and cumbersome submissions and managing adherence to the process, and for the students, who should spend more time being directly taught and mastering the content rather than on presentation and making sure their Harvard referencing is correct!
  • Poor quality controls seem quite widespread with BTECs.  Pretty much every member of staff who has joined us have too many examples of this for it to be apocryphal.  I once had a bit of a falling-out with a fellow principal because I challenged their position that their role was to get the best results possible for their students; it was being used as a reason for not moving to RQFs. I countered this with my view that I would rather focus on the quality and depth of learning.  (I expect some thought I was being naive but this is the approach I  have always taken and I pretty confident the outcomes this achieves stack up impressively against any others).

I want a system that is more ambitious and more demanding across the board. Staff at my College have done an amazing job migrating to the RQF’s, and these are more demanding, which was actually the reason we moved to them; we were perhaps a very lonely minority that regretted the pared down role of the external assessment.   Results improved!  It was the same cohort of students doing more demanding work and the results improved!  I know this is anecdote, but it does support the evidence that students make better progress when we have more instructional learning.  I am convinced that there is even more that could be achieved in terms of intellectual and cognitive development with this cohort of students.  

However, I think there need to be two changes, one of perception and one of policy.  Firstly, perception: we have to accept that the whole range of grades at A Level are an accomplishment.  A student getting a C or a D should be celebrated if that is evidence of good progress.  What we have now is a situation where these students have to achieve Distinctions in a BTEC to feel successful. This is grade inflation with consequences, as we pass the problem on to HE with students moving onto courses they are ill-equipped for.  The second change is the greater acceptance of a three-year A-Level programme; the foundation year can be constructed in a variety of ways, but this should be used to adequately prepare students for the demands of A-Levels.

If none of these accommodations are right and students cannot manage academic qualifications, and I believe virtually all motivated and well-supported students can, then perhaps a more genuine and full vocational programme would be more appropriate.

There is a lot more detail and many more reasons for supporting the phase-out of many BTECs and applied generals, but I have perhaps rattled too many cages and upset more than enough people for the time being - please join in the debate.

Mike Kilbride is principal of Birkenhead Sixth Form College, CEO of the BePART Educational Trust, and chair of the Wirral Association of Secondary Heads.

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