Why we must #ProtectStudentChoice and retain BTECs

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Why we must #ProtectStudentChoice and retain BTECsWhy we must #ProtectStudentChoice and retain BTECs
Date14th Feb 2022AuthorJames KewinCategoriesPolicy and News

This is an earlier version of an article also published with University Alliance's Ellie Russell here.

The Sixth Form Colleges Association has serious concerns about the government’s plan to remove funding for most BTEC qualifications. We are not alone. Last month, the #ProtectStudentChoice petition secured the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a debate in Parliament. In October, a cross-party group of 118 MPs and Peers wrote to the Secretary of State setting out their concerns that the government’s plan “will leave many students without a viable pathway after their GCSEs.” And 86% of respondents to the government’s consultation on post-16 qualifications disagreed with the plan to remove funding for qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels.

SFCA is co-ordinating the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign – a coalition of 28 organisations from across the school, college and university sectors, united in the belief that removing funding for most BTECs would be disastrous for young people. It is hard to think of a government proposal in recent years that has provoked such universal opposition from such a broad range of organisations. 

The current Secretary of State has made a welcome commitment to making evidence-based decisions on the future of Level 3 qualifications, and in November, the campaign had a degree of success when it was confirmed the plan to defund BTECs would be delayed by a year. But the overall direction of travel remains the same. 

A huge number of young people will be affected by this proposal. We estimate that at least 30% of the 864,304 16- to 18-year-olds studying a Level 3 qualification in England are pursuing at least one BTEC qualification - some 259,291 students. And it is disadvantaged young people that have the most to lose, a conclusion from DfE’s own equalities impact assessment: “Those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males [are] disproportionately likely to be affected.”

One of our main concerns is that replacing the current three-route model of Level 3 qualifications (A levels, BTECs, technical qualifications) with a two-route model (A levels and T levels) will not meet the needs of all students and will remove an effective and well- established route to higher education. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students that enter university studied at least one BTEC and 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications. 

The government is embarking on an education reform that will further disadvantage disadvantaged students, reverse recent progress made in widening participation and (to use a specific example from one sector) prevent thousands of working-class students from training to be nurses and healthcare workers. The obvious question is—why? We venture two explanations.

The first relates to participation in T levels. It is no secret that the government wants to boost the number of students taking T levels. The latest data shows that 6,750 of the 1.1 million 16-19 year olds in full time education are enrolled on one of these courses, following £482 million of investment. The government believes that scrapping most BTECs will drive up T level enrolments. In a startling admission last year, one DfE minister said it was necessary to remove “competing qualifications” in order to make a success of T levels. 

We do not agree. T levels and BTECs are different, rather than competing, qualifications and it is perfectly possible for both to operate alongside A levels in a three-route qualification system. T levels are a welcome addition the qualifications landscape. But they are a niche product that the government is attempting to promote as a mass market product. DfE has now realised that the only way to turn this niche product into a mass market product is to scrap BTECs (an existing, successful mass market product) and hope that students flock to T levels as a result. In practice, we think this will actually lead to more students taking A levels or disengaging from education altogether.    

The second relates to participation in higher education. Is it possible that what we regard as one of the great strengths of BTECs – helping young people, and particularly disadvantaged young people, progress to higher education – is actually regarded as a weakness by the government? It is increasingly clear that policymakers believe that too many 18 year olds progress to university (shorthand for three-year, full-time, first degree courses at Level 6) and not enough progress to further education (shorthand for technical education at Level 4 and 5). 

This view is problematic in many ways, particularly for a government committed to ‘levelling up’ opportunity. For example, there are huge regional variations in the rate of progression to higher education - from 25% in Knowsley to 64% in Westminster. We also know that just 20% of students from non-selective state schools and colleges progress to high-tariff universities, compared to 57% of students from the independent sector. And it remains to be seen if take-up of Level 4/5 technical courses will be as high in Westminster as it is in Knowsley.

Although university-educated policymakers are increasingly fond of talking down the benefits of a university education and talking up the benefits of alternative routes (not easy, as Level 4/5 technical courses are few and far between in comparison), there is little evidence that young people are listening, with record numbers due to enter university this year

On the whole, students are making rational, informed choices about what to study in both the sixth form and at university. Narrowing the range of options available to young people would be disastrous for social mobility and widening participation. Unless it charts a different course, the government is set to embark on a misguided tidying up exercise that will leave many young people without a viable pathway at the age of 16. SFCA and the other 27 campaign partners will continue to make the case that we need to #ProtectStudentChoice, and ensure that BTECs continue to play a major in the qualifications landscape.

James Kewin is deputy chief executive at the Sixth Form Colleges Association.

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