Government consults on plans to withdraw funding for applied generals including BTECs

The future of thousands of applied general qualifications including BTECs hangs in the balance as the government launches its first consultation on plans to withdraw their funding.

The Department for Education has been reviewing vocational qualifications at level 3 and below since announcing plans to introduce new “high-quality” T-levels.

The review includes applied generals, tech levels and technical certificates, which are vocational alternatives to A-levels. While these cover a wide range of courses, BTECs, awarded by Pearson, are the most popular.

The key issue will be to ensure the government is not artificially trying to close down market choice

The government claims many of these qualifications, of which there are more than 12,000, are of “poor quality” and their existence leaves young people and employers “confused”.

Today, at 09.30am, the DfE will launch the first part of a two-stage consultation to decide their futures.

Open for 12 weeks, the government is firstly consulting on “only providing public funding for qualifications that meet key criteria on quality, purpose, necessity and progression” and “not providing public funding for qualifications for 16 to 19 year olds that overlap with T-levels or A-levels”.

A second consultation will follow later this year setting out the proposed criteria that will be used to determine whether a qualification continues to receive public funding.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said the “really significant” element of the consultation is the “review of applied general qualifications, which include the very popular and well-understood BTECs and CTECs (Cambridge Technical Extended Certificate)”.

“And this is not a minority pursuit,” he explained. “More than 200,000 16 to 18 year olds study these courses every year, often studying a combination of A-levels and applied generals on a blended timetable.

“The government may see the introduction of T-levels as the best way to address the skills gap, about which it is, quite rightly, concerned. But this should not be at the expense of applied generals.”

Tom Bewick, the chief executive of the Federation of Awarding Bodies, told FE Week the “devil will be in the detail”.

“The key issue will be to ensure the government is not artificially trying to close down market choice for learners and employers; or to manipulate the existing level 3 technical qualifications, like applied generals, in order to make the T-levels effectively the only qualification learners and employers can choose from in future,” he said.

“Governments have a very poor history of second guessing the needs of diverse learner communities and the labour market, so we should rightly proceed with caution over the weeks and months ahead.”

Last year, exams regulator Ofqual ordered exam boards to strengthen their controls on certain types of applied general qualifications, after evidence was uncovered of grade inflation on old-style BTECs.

The regulator has also warned of “confusion” between legacy BTECs – which don’t feature any external assessment – and new versions of the qualifications. Sally Collier, the chief regulator, told MPs last week that outcomes for reformed BTECs would be under scrutiny.

We can improve the quality of the options out there

Education secretary Damian Hinds (pictured) said today: “We can’t legislate for parity of esteem between academic and technical routes post-16. But we can improve the quality of the options out there and by raising quality, more students and parents will trust these routes.”

The response to the first consultation will be published alongside the launch the second consultation later in the year.

OCR, which offers many applied generals, welcomed the consultation.

“We are confident that it will be open and wide ranging, taking full account of widespread views, and will ensure that young people continue to have access to high quality qualifications which will, in many cases, include Applied General Qualifications,” a spokesperson for the exam board said.

Catherine Sezen, senior policy manager at the Association of Colleges, said it is “crucial that there are study programmes and qualifications which meet the needs of all students as well as those of business and the economy” and this review “kick starts this important conversation”.

T-levels, which will attempt to streamline the 13,000 or so technical qualifications on offer into 15 routes to present a clearer choice between A-levels and T-levels, will be rolled out from 2020.