A cross-party group of 118 MPs and Lords have called on new education secretary Nadhim Zahawi to “recalibrate” the government’s “disastrous” plans to scrap the majority of BTECs.
They warn that going ahead with the proposals will hit disadvantaged students the hardest and lead to many taking courses that “do not meet their needs, or dropping out of education altogether”.
A letter from the group was sent to Zahawi today to support the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, a coalition of 21 organisations including FE Week urging ministers to rethink plans outlined in the level 3 qualifications review.
In July, the Department for Education confirmed plans to introduce a twin-track system of A-levels and T Levels, where most young people pursue one of these qualifications at the age of 16.
This will involve stripping down what the DfE claims to be a “confusing landscape” of over 12,000 other level 3 and below courses on offer to young people, removing funding for the majority of those that compete with T Levels and A-levels by autumn 2023.
The review includes applied generals, tech levels and technical certificates. While these cover a wide range of courses, BTECs, awarded by Pearson, are the most popular.
Analysis by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which is co-ordinating the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, estimates that at least 30 per cent (almost 260,000) of 16- to 18-year-olds studying a level 3 qualification in England are pursuing applied general qualifications.
The DfE’s own impact assessment of its level 3 review concluded that students from disadvantaged backgrounds have the most to lose if applied general qualifications are defunded, as it is these students who typically choose to take the courses.
Signatories to today’s letter include three former education secretaries – Lord Baker of Dorking, Baroness Morris of Yardley and Lord Blunkett, the current shadow education secretary Kate Green and Liberal Democrat education spokesperson Daisy Cooper.
The political party split is 89 for Labour, 18 for Conservative, eight Lib Dems, two independents and one green.
In their letter, the parliamentarians welcome the introduction of T Levels but say it is “not necessary to remove applied general qualifications to make T Levels a success” and that it is “perfectly possible for both to co-exist with A-levels in the future qualifications landscape”.
They call for the option to study BTECs to be retained as they “are a different type of qualification that provide a different type of educational experience – one that combines the development of skills with academic learning”.
The letter urges Zahawi to “make an early assessment” of the plans and asks for an assurance that “students will continue to have the choice to study a wide range of applied general qualifications in the future”.
Many Lords delivered impassioned speeches in the House of Lords last night about the possibility of losing the majority of BTECs, in the first debate for the report stage of the Skills Bill.
One of them was Lord Baker. Commenting on today’s letter, he said the current plans would be “disastrous for young people and disastrous for employers”.
“It is wildly unrealistic to expect them to be replaced by T Levels, a qualification so new that not a single student has yet completed one,” he added.
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said: “It is telling that so many MPs and peers have joined such a broad coalition of educational bodies to support the campaign to protect student choice.
“There are few issues that could engender such strength of feeling and such commonality of purpose; the removal of BTECs represents a hammer blow for social mobility, the skills gap and the economy.”
A DfE spokesperson pointed out that they plan to continue to fund BTECs or similar qualifications “where there is a clear need for skills and knowledge that is not provided elsewhere”.
They added: “Employers are facing skills shortages that we must act to address. Now more than ever, it is vital that the qualifications on offer meet the needs of employers and support more people into higher skilled, higher wage jobs.
“Our reforms will simplify the current system and ensure young people can be confident that the qualifications they study will be fit for the future, high quality and lead to good outcomes.”