Preserving funding for applied general qualifications is the best way to ensure T Levels succeed, says Ian Pryce
Can you remember that dress that went viral in 2015, generating more than 10 million tweets? There were furious rows about whether it was black and blue, or white and gold, yet everyone was looking at the same frock.
We thought there were two dresses, but closer inspection revealed they were identical.
There probably haven’t been 10 million tweets on the proposed culling of BTECs in favour of T Levels but, once the concept of T Levels as a mass-market qualification met the bruising reality of parental expectation and employers’ capacity, there have been compromises.
Too much compromise would undermine the idea of the T Level and end with them looking surprisingly similar to a BTEC. That was never the plan, but, as Mike Tyson famously said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth”.
The compromise started in earnest in the past few weeks, with three separate statements.
First, despite the Treasury announcing funding for 100,000 T Level students by 2024, up from an estimated 1,300 last year, we were told on November 4 there was no target for T Level recruitment.
Second, at the same time our new education secretary explained there was never an intention to stop funding BTECs, and indeed high-quality BTECs will continue.
This is at odds with the Department for Education consultation response last August that expected applied generals to become “rare”.
Third, a “temporary” change was announced by the Education and Skills Funding Agency to allow up to 40 per cent of T Level work placement to be done remotely.
Then finally at the start of this week Nadhim Zahawi announced the removal of BTECs would be delayed by a year, and the exit requirements for English and maths, requiring students to achieve level 2 in those subjects, would be watered down.
The reassurance from the education secretary on preserving funding for applied general qualifications is welcome. He rightly recognises it is the best way to delivering a fabulous new addition to our curriculum.
Meanwhile, the government should also be applauded for recognising the traditional post-16 curriculum had a major gap. There was no true, industry-specific, technical education programme.
T Levels were developed thoughtfully and effectively, with upfront investment in facilities and staff training.
They are genuinely world-class qualifications, designed for elite students who have a strong notion about their future career.
But they are designed for that minority.
They are not designed for a mass-market. It seems unlikely T levels will become highly valued if their sole comparator is A-levels.
T Levels are designed for a minority, not for the mass-market
In contrast, BTECs and equivalents are designed as mass-market options. Like A-levels you can as easily offer a very wide range of subjects in rural Cumbria as you can in urban Manchester.
They can be studied in colleges or schools. Crucially they do not require a deep commitment to an occupation, which is helpful when few 16-year-olds know their ambitions in any precise way.
We also have a practical barrier, if we are hellbent on switching 200,000 students to a T Level.
The idea that our current employer landscape could support quality work placements for so many is silly.
Employers in specific sectors are not evenly spread across the country. You need to be of good size to offer most placements, yet in the UK there are fewer than 8,000 companies that employ more than 250 staff.
The danger is that if the government culls BTECs, it will actually damage T Levels, because we will see further compromise on content, quality and design.
Parents will not allow their children to be forced to choose a narrow specialism with no effective exit.
Let’s not throw away the promise of the T Level by trying to make them all things to all students.
Otherwise, just like the blue/gold dress, they could end up looking very much like BTECs do now.