Don’t scrap BTECs. Raise the rate. Leave us alone.

Don’t scrap BTECs. Raise the rate. Leave us alone.Don’t scrap BTECs. Raise the rate. Leave us alone.
Date4th Oct 2021AuthorJames KewinCategoriesPolicy and News

A shorter version of this article previously appeared in FE Week here.

It is important for membership bodies to talk to their members, but it is much more important to listen to them. And even over the din created by Covid, exams and generally keeping the show on the road, concerns about three issues have been heard loud and clear.

The first is the future of applied general qualifications. A two year phoney war ended in July when the Department for Education revealed that it would ignore the views of most respondents to its consultation and press ahead with plans to remove funding for the vast majority of applied general qualifications. A levels or T levels will become the Level 3 “qualifications of choice” for 16-19 year olds. Virtually nobody outside of Sanctuary Buildings believes this is either achievable or desirable. But that’s the plan and that’s what everyone in 16-19 education must prepare for, unless of course we can convince ministers to chart a different course. 

To that end, we are co-ordinating the Protect Student Choice campaign, now backed by 18 organisations and we are delighted to include FE Week in that number. Don’t scrap BTECs is the simple message (we use BTEC as shorthand for all applied general qualifications) and it is one we hope the new ministerial team will listen to and act on. Every organisation involved in the campaign welcomes T levels, but also believes they should sit alongside BTECs and A levels in the future qualifications landscape.   

The second issue is funding. Again, a simple message (the base rate of 16-19 funding is insufficient and must be increased) and a co-ordinated campaign (Raise the Rate). The campaign had a degree of success in 2019 when the funding rate was increased from £4,000 per full time student to £4,188 (although third year students are still inexplicably funded at a lower rate). But since then, investment has once again been limited to small uplifts in funding linked to particular subjects or initiatives. These micro interventions can look good on a government press release, but they have no impact on the vast majority of students. 

Raising the rate is the only way to ensure 16-19 funding is sufficient and made available in a way that institutions can tailor to the individual needs of their students. Policymakers struggle with this because it sounds so boring – and they worry about the ‘something for something’ requirement from HM Treasury. Leaving aside the fact that this requirement only seems to apply to post-16 education (I cannot remember additional school funding being tied to, say, delivering two extra GCSEs) - our ‘something’ is a rounded, high quality education that equips young people with the knowledge, skills and experience they need to flourish in higher education and/or skilled employment. Surely that will do?

The third issue is one that has proved to be the final straw for many colleges desperately trying to hold things together during the Covid maelstrom. Audit. It is important that public money is spent correctly, and no institution should be above scrutiny. But any regime that spends weeks challenging an institution on how it has made free college meal and bursary payments to students during a pandemic has surely lost its way. We are collating some of the most egregious examples of heavy-handed audit practice and will share with ministers later in the year. 

The theme that runs through all three of these issues is trust, or more specifically, a fundamental lack of trust. Government knows best. Replace these popular and well-respected qualifications with our preferred suite of very different qualifications; we’ll talk about the 250 employers involved in the development of T levels but airbrush out the thousands of employers involved in BTEC qualifications. Like a well-meaning but distant relative, we’ll provide you with the post-16 equivalent of gift vouchers to ensure funding is spent on the ‘right’ things. And we’ll keep looking over your shoulder to ensure you comply with every aspect of the terms and conditions! 

There is another way. Trust the experts. Give institutions the tools to do the job and let them get on with it. Sometimes governments can do more by doing less: don’t scrap BTECs, raise the rate, leave us alone. Boring and unfashionable perhaps, but these three ideas would do more improve the prospects of 16-19 year olds than every well-intended initiative combined over the past 10 years. Let’s hope the new ministerial team is listening.  

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

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