Six past education secretaries have spoken. They all agree that Gillian Keegan’s decision to stop funding BTECs and other vocational courses is horrendous. It [to channel my inner Liz Truss] … is … a … disgrace. Six! Blimey. They must be right.
In other news, six people who all did A levels and degrees have decided that our technical education system is doing swell.
The government’s decision to stop funding a load of technical education courses is making some people cross. Why is this? Maybe it’s because technical education in this country is already so good. That’s why people around the world speak of the ‘UK Technical Education system’; I mean you can hardly move in the DfE for Germans coming to learn from our model.
No, I don’t think so. The truth is that we have continually underfunded technical education for years. While we have protected the schools budget, we have cut away at the budget for FE and for technical training. We have a workforce that works incredibly hard and is often incredibly skilled, yet they remain underpaid without some of the investment that has gone into the school workforce. We have also failed to give them the tools to do the job. Teachers have to ultimately cover the curriculum and prepare students to complete their qualification.
The qualifications that teachers have to work to are not good enough. (Yes, BTECs, I’m talking about you.) Why is this? It’s because for too long technical education has been for “someone else’s children”. Those in power have not been serious about reform and it pains me to see normally wise ex-politicians continuing to make this mistake.
So what exactly is wrong with the existing qualifications? Here’s the thing, good technical education does one thing: it prepares young people to get a skilled job. BTECs have not been designed with this goal in mind. They do not even include a mandatory on-the-job element. Instead, they have become a general-purpose qualification that gives children some job knowledge, but also doubles as a source of UCAS points to getting into university. (Whisper it: They do have another purpose, which is to make Pearson quite a lot of revenue.)
If you travel the world and visit really world-class technical education systems, this is not normal. Instead teachers work with qualifications that are designed to prepare young people to get good jobs.
It is time for change. That change is to T levels – a qualification designed for a good job, with a work placement required.
I know what you’re going to say. Why not keep them both? If T levels are so great, why not allow them to out-compete BTECs? If students want to do them, they will.
It sounds like a winning argument. But here’s the issue. Most colleges won’t be able to offer both T levels and BTECs in all subjects. Class sizes would be too small and the costs too high. And so the choice won’t be made by the child at all, but the college.
If you’re a college principal – one who has learned to survive and hopefully thrive in a world of unpredictable low funding – what will you choose? The qualification you have been delivering for years, or the new one? The qualification that children and parents recognise, or the new one? The qualification that doesn’t require you to find a work placement, or the new one?
I would want to choose the T Level, but I think I would choose the BTEC.
Thankfully the present education secretary also has a choice. She can listen to her six predecessors and keep the existing qualifications in place – the ones that most of us (in our heart of hearts) suspect are not quite good enough.
Or she can strike out on her own and start to build a technical education system to be proud of by turning off the existing qualifications. I know what I hope she does.