Keegan should stick to her guns and show BTECs both barrels

Gillian Keegan should ignore her nay-sayer predecessors and make the change that will finally deliver world-class technical education

Gillian Keegan should ignore her nay-sayer predecessors and make the change that will finally deliver world-class technical education

12 Feb 2023, 5:00

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.

For too long technical education has been for ‘someone else’s children’

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.

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  1. Julian Gravatt

    The college principals I know are investing in T levels but know that they won’t work for all of their current Level 3 students. T levels entrants typically need GCSEs averaging grade 5 or better and there’s likely to be a ceiling on the number of employer placements. If DFE doesn’t vary its defunding plans, colleges will be enrolling more Level 2 and A level students and cutting jobs. Inflation has and is already eroding the value of the three year budgets agreed in 2021’for the period to 2025. Defunding BTEC courses (because of an understandable antipathy to Pearson?) without a proper alternative just adds to the problems facing college leaders, staff and students.

    PS. England’s college system attracts positive comments from overseas visitors but I’ve observed puzzlement at the constant policy churn.

  2. Rob green

    Spoken as a true Oxford graduate.
    Presenting to have concern for all these young people
    Mr Yates have you ever worked in a college?
    What you and your adviser friends really want is to move the country back 70 years
    By introducing a secondary modern system at age 16.
    Heaven forbid those who are disadvantaged should aspire to your job. Apart from the few you deem worthy of allowing to join the ruling classes
    After all we need cheap labour post Brexit don’t we and young people fit the bill. Why not be open and transparent, the reforms are not about improving education they are about ideology. Fewer working class young people should go to college and university in your and your Tory friends view.
    Creation of the new factory fodder mentality from the 1950s. It’s shocking!!
    Be honest and don’t dress things up.

  3. David Moir

    I read this article hoping to discover an argument for the level 3 reforms that had passed me by up to now. Sadly, but not surprisingly, I was disappointed.

    You talk about BTECs providing a route to University as a bad thing. Getting rid of L3 courses like the BTEC will close the door to university to many young people.

    You don’t like BTECs because they don’t include a mandatory work placement. So argue to modify them, not chuck them.

    You also say its a problem that awarding bodies make money. You could level this concern at every qualification out there.

    You are right to point out that colleges will continue to offer the BTECs and smaller L3 qualifications if they are able to – because they are inclusive, tried and tested. Colleges know their students and guide them accordingly. We want them to succeed.

    What colleges won’t do is put students onto a T level if they are not suited to completing it successfully. Even if it is the only option available. T levels will succeed if there is sufficient demand for them from students able to complete them.

    The major concern with T levels, which your article has failed to acknowledge exists, is that a sizable proportion of students who currently study a L3 technical courses will not be able to complete and pass a T level. If they can’t do a T level what are they left with if both barrels have been fired and everything else has gone? Will they even stay in education if all that’s left stops at level 2?

  4. Derek Tilley

    What a load of Nonsense, no wonder FE is in a mess if this is what the DfE think. BTEC gives our young people the chance to learn about different careers without committing themselves. Two of my children did BTEC and one is a VP at IBM and the other a senior manager with CISCO.

  5. David Hughes

    Wow, Jon. You should really do better than this. Read the comments above this one, visit a college and talk to the staff and to the BTEC/Cambridge Tech students, find out more before firing off ill-informed view. Take a look at the T Level in health and social care and recognise that it is designed to be taken by the strongest students, with really good GCSE scores, not by many of the BTEC/Cambridge Tech students who will have an average score of just over 4 in their GCSEs – no college should or would ever put students onto a T Level without confidence that (with hard work) they will be able to achieve it. If you believe so much in T Levels, and by the way I do, that they have an important place to play as one part of the offer, then trust in them. Colleges want to offer them, student feedback is positive, employers involved are positive, so why worry that the numbers might not grow? But like most change processes, allow the change to happen in good time – cliff-edge changes are usually more painful and damaging than evolution. Defund any qualifications when it is clear that they are not needed, but there are many qualifications proposed for defunding which will be needed because T Levels will not be available/accessible/viable for all of the students who want to study in that discipline/subject.

  6. Tim Buchanan

    How wonderful to see a policy wonk taken to task for their comments, it is the input of this type of thinking that is inhibiting the development of good partnerships between employers, Universities, colleges and ITP. We all want to create solutions solutions for developing skills and opportunity for young people and existing staff. There are many routes into work and the development of skills and we should not be cutting any of those avenues. So yes develop T levels but in a way that compliments the delivery that is currently being undertaken.

  7. albert wright

    We all want young people to succeed and progress but we need to be honest about standards..

    The supporters of BTEC seem to imply that they are popular with students and colleges because they are a level 3 qualification that can be successfully completed by those with a level 2 ability.

    Presumably, they are also funded to the usual level 3 rates, which is why they are profitable?

    To solve the dispute, there seem to be 2 options:

    i) increase the ability of more students under age 16 so that they can successfully undertake a “true” level 3 qualification.

    ii) re-brand the BTEC ?

    • Rob green

      What nonsense.
      Btecs offer a broad educational opportunity and don’t forget they were reformed in the past few years to introduce more rigour.
      The author clearly isn’t from a college background. Qualifications funded to level 3, of course they are and profitable for whom given that colleges are charities?
      T levels as instituted are misconceived. Look at the ridiculous attempt to ascribe UCAS points to all T levels. Sainsbury did not envisage them as a route to HE but then he didn’t say btecs should be done away with, in the original work. Some of the t levels look ridiculous and will end up with no enrolments because they are too narrow or because the aren’t needed to get a job.
      The defunding and t level push is aimed at reducing disadvantaged students accessing HE. It is well known that educational progress is generational with first generation in HE becoming parents and encouraging their children . It’s telling that the DfE own biased analysis acknowledged the changes will disproportionately and negatively impact on disadvantaged and minority students. Many of these students have part-time jobs to support their household now told to work for nothing!
      No wonder DfE had to put a disclaimer on saying T levels weren’t modern slavery. Make up your own minds. Do you think civil servants and policy advisers would work for nothing.