The Government announced in July of 2021 an educational proposal to scrap BTEC qualifications with an alternative technical alternative T Levels. This announcement came after a government funding review.
The Government’s policy shift has received widespread condemnation, namely on the left of the political spectrum. The central issues pertaining to this policy shift concern the accessibility of the new T Levels system. The Government continues to defend this decision, mainly due to research commissioned by the Government in 2011 and 2016. The central issues that were established in the report pertained to the number of level 3 qualifications eligible for public funding. The report highlighted that 4,000 level qualifications eligible for said funds were duplicates in the same subject. Notably, the report evidenced that 200 different engineering qualifications were eligible for public funds.
The report also noted concerns with the level of students understanding the current further educational system. A core concern discussed in the report observed that despite students attaining such qualifications, employers and other institutions found the qualifications confusing, arguing that they failed to equip students for skilled work. Thus, the crux of the Government’s concerns were that the qualifications produced educated yet non-skilled graduates in the employment sector.
What will the new system comprise of?
The Government seeks to create two-pathways for post-16 progression. In this, the new system will comprise of the current academic route of A-Levels and a technical route termed T Levels for young people wanting to enter skilled employment.
Nevertheless, some level 3 qualifications will still be retained, subject to a clear demonstration of their distinct purposes and educational quality for it to receive public funding. The Government hopes that such reforms will eliminate “low quality qualification” from the system. Notably, the Government consistently used the words “improving student choices” when advocating for this policy direction.
The Department for Education continues to insist that these proposals will “meet the needs of employers and support more people into higher skilled, higher wage jobs”.
Additionally, the Department for Education affirmed that this move would enable “students to gain the skills and experience needed to start roles within the health sector.” While the Department for Education did not confirm a complete cancellation of BTECs, it is apparent that the policy shift demonstrates an ideological shift away from BTECs. Such rhetoric from the Department for Education demonstrates a clear demarcation between “useful and useable” qualifications in the current system.
A war on working class students?
What are the ramifications of such a sharp decision? Are we to believe that T Levels will be an accessible alternative to BTECs? Activists and left-wing pundits provide clear answers to these questions. They have termed the move as a “war on the working class.”
Policy Manager for GuildHE Kate Wicklow recently condemned the move as she highlighted that “44% of white working-class students and 37% of black students enter uni with only BTEC qualifications. Cutting these will have a huge impact on social mobility and our economy.”
A key issue noted by dissenters to the policy is the need for young people to have passed Mathematics and English GCSEs to be eligible for T-Levels. Dissenters highlight that such a policy move will inevitably lock many children out of higher education. Others have noted the comparability between this policy move and the additional government response to the Augar review of higher education funding. The Augar review seeks to prohibit pupils who fail their Math’s and English GCSEs from taking out university student loans.
The crux of the criticisms pertain to what critics would call a “systematic reduction” of accessible educational avenues under current Government policy. They argue that working class children are having to navigate an ever-growing arduous educational system. A key concern about the proposed policy is that it fails to deliver an equivalent educational avenue for children on the vocational path with another concern being that the central ethos for T Levels will be to work with employers. T Levels may therefore fail to be an alternative avenue to accessing university courses.
Crucially, the NHS Confederation have also come out against the policy reform as they warn that the reduction to BTEC qualifications in health and social care will “risk an important health staffing pipeline”. The NHS Confederation have warned that recruitment in the health and social care sector is already fragile and that proposed changes to the BTEC qualifications system will cement a chronic social care shortage.
What are we to think about this policy direction? Will it improve educational attainment nationwide? Or is this another policy direction that will shut the border to accessible education for working class children? What cannot be disputed is the fixation of the Government to undertake a reductive policy focus in the realm of education.
To truly achieve educational and vocational success, the Government must concern itself with ensuring that teachers stay in the profession. The extent to which childhood poverty plays a central role in the non-attainment of children in mainstream education cannot be understated. To remove a qualification system which is accessible to children across the class system would inevitably create a system in which children who are not nurtured in a wealthy and stable environment slip through the cracks in the educational system.
Across the political spectrum, teachers and others in the profession have called for the Government to invest in mainstream schools, to increase the wages of teachers and tackle a central issue in children not attaining Key Stage 3 and 4 attainments in school.: social deprivation. It is time that the government listen.