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

2 Oct 2021, 6:00

Here is a 16-19 manifesto in nine words. Follow it, and ministers can’t go wrong, writes James Kewin

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 and exams, 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 BTECs. 

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, SFCA is 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. 

The second issue is funding. 

Again, there is 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 modest interventions can look good on a government press release, but they have no impact on the vast majority of students. 

The mundane reality is that raising the rate is the only way to ensure 16-19 funding is sufficientand made available in a way that institutions can tailor to the individual needs of their students. 

Covid has strengthened the case for boosting core funding. Education recovery cannot be micro-managed from Whitehall, and colleges are best placed to ensure funding is targeted at the right students, in the right way. 

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. 

New requirements are added to the regulatory and accountability system each year, but it is rare for existing requirements to be withdrawn. 

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. 

Let’s hope the new ministerial team is listening

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 to 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.

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One comment

  1. Mike Saunders

    100% agree with this manifesto. The Government have little or no understanding of the sector and treat us with contempt. Boris and the yes men need to get out and meet people who really understand what Colleges do and listen rather than telling. If they do, they will be the first Government ever to do so though, so I will not hold my breath!