Alumni agree: Losing BTECs will exclude many from success

New life histories research adds the voices of alumni to the chorus of concerns about the scrapping of BTEC, explain Susan McGrath and Maia Madhvani

New life histories research adds the voices of alumni to the chorus of concerns about the scrapping of BTEC, explain Susan McGrath and Maia Madhvani

5 Mar 2023, 5:00

The government’s review of level 3 qualifications has concluded that BTEC is neither a technical qualification, nor a good preparation for university. As a result, BTECs are being defunded. At UP2UNI, we have personal experience of BTEC dating back to 1988, as teachers, managers, franchisers, assessors, selectors and evaluators in schools, FE and HE.

We see lots of positives in T levels, but we strongly object to the removal of applied generals so that T levels can ‘flourish’. We’re not alone: our position is shared by many educators, employers, universities and senior politicians of all parties, making this ironically one of the most unifying political actions ever taken in the education sector.

The government’s response to the level 3 review coincided with the launch of UP2UNI’s 3-year evaluation of Professional Pathways, a programme in which a wrap-around curriculum runs alongside the level 3 BTEC in Ark sixth forms. Surveys, interviews and focus groups with some 600 students and alumni refuted the stereotypical view of BTEC as ‘second-best’; these students made ambitious and sustainable post-18 choices in the same way as their A level peers.

As objections to the defunding of BTEC spread from educators to the general public, we felt there was a gap in the debate: the voice of adults who could reflect on the impact of BTEC on their education, employment and career trajectories over their lifespan. Our response was a life histories project with adults who took a BTEC diploma between the 1980s and 2010s, in ten different industry sectors.

The research produced rich data supportive of the concerns being expressed in the media, but one of our findings seems to be a topic receiving less attention: those students who progress from “failure” at school to demonstrate their full potential through a BTEC route that offers a smooth transition from entry level to level 3, suggesting a failure of the school system, not the students.

Alumni refute the view of BTEC as ‘second-best’

As our participants described their BTEC experience, it emerged that two of them had followed this pathway. One had a story familiar to many FE practitioners: a school curriculum that simply failed to deliver for a young person who was ‘dyslexic, not academic, often sitting in a classroom without really understanding, and found that everything went out of their head in the exam hall’. Four years on, the student had a level 3 diploma, level 2 English and maths, and work experience that prepared them for employment in their chosen sector. The other participant, having arrived in this country at 18 with no prior schooling or qualifications, progressed from entry level to top grades at level 3, followed by a first-class university degree and graduate employment.

Anyone who has worked in FE will have similar examples; it’s a feature of BTEC that really does support levelling up and enhances social mobility. If this is lost, what will we offer 16-year-olds who feel they have failed? T levels, even with a transition year, won’t fill this gap – and anyway, many of these young people will not want a technical route.

In the ‘Imagined Futures’ section of our report, there are some strong views on the loss of BTEC. However, our participants were not simply protective of the distinctive BTEC brand; they were calling for the retention of an approach to learning and assessment that was very different to their experience of school, that had allowed them to shine, prepared them for employment and represented an educational concept they felt should not be denied to young people in the future.

A growing movement in England is arguing for assessment to be fairer, broader and more equitable than the exam-assessed GCSE curriculum that leaves many 16-year-olds with nothing to show by way of achievement. There are many reasons why BTECs should not be summarily withdrawn, but defunding a pathway that enables such young people to gain recognised qualifications, with progression routes to employment in sectors crucial to our national economy, may be the most important reason of all.

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  1. Alex white

    I’m fairly new to FE, but even in that short period its clear to see that they jump to T levels would rule out 50-70% of my current health and social care group.

    It’s a disaster waiting to happen.

    • I am a product of BTEC: a capable student with mediocre outcomes at school, but with ambitions to build a successful career. I followed L3 BTEC, HND, Degree, IPD, PGCE with a career of four years in banking and 30 in education. I am one of hundreds of thousands who have benefitted from BTEC It is time for the DFE to roll back their plans. The new landscape of narrowing routes is creating an incomprehensible monster of confusion, which will fail the very people who need an applied route.