Ministers must heed colleges on their move to defund BTECs

T Levels are a rigorous alternative but will not fill the gap left by scrapping BTECs’ tested route from entry level to level 3, writes Sam Parrett

T Levels are a rigorous alternative but will not fill the gap left by scrapping BTECs’ tested route from entry level to level 3, writes Sam Parrett

4 Mar 2023, 5:00

The FE sector has united this week to send a clear message to DfE ministers about their planned reform of level 3 qualifications.

The ambition to have robust, universally recognised and valued qualifications cannot be argued against. But what policy makers need to be completely clear on – and what colleges are shouting about – is the impact that defunding 75 level 3 qualifications will have on the lives of people studying them, now and in the future.

Level 3 students at our college have chosen not to take an academic A level route at school. This may be because they didn’t achieve the GCSE grades required to stay on at sixth form or because they prefer a more practical learning route with an identified career at its end.

We currently have around 40 Level 3 courses for 16-18-year-olds in a range of areas from art and design to uniformed protective services. By 2025, based on the new reforms, we will be delivering a fraction of these courses and instead be offering seven T Levels.

While I am supportive of T levels and believe them to be an excellent alternative route for some students, they are in no way a direct replacement for the vocational qualifications that will be lost. 

T levels are rigorous. They are ultimately an A level alternative for people who get at least five GCSEs as opposed to being an alternate vocational 1-3 level for those who don’t.

There’s an obvious gap here, and until we improve the school system enough to ensure everyone is leaving with five GCSEs we need a range of fully accessible level 3 qualifications. T levels aren’t the answer as the bar is just too high.

In addition, they are ‘large qualifications’ and remove scope for a broader set of subjects to be studied. This means that learners will be very much tied to the industry they have chosen at age 16. This simply isn’t right for everyone.

The skills system isn’t failing T levels; The school system is

It’s not the skills system that’s failing T levels, it’s the school system. We need qualifications and accessible pathways for people who don’t achieve as well academically but have got talent in many other areas. 

Such young people and adults need and deserve high-quality alternative routes to achieve social and economic mobility. This equality of opportunity can only be achieved with accessible, sustainable and industry-relevant skills-based qualifications.

The definition of social mobility is ‘a change in someone’s socio-economic situation, either in relation to their parents or throughout their own lifetime’. In short, this is about ensuring people have access to the same opportunities as others to do well in life and are able to successfully improve their own prospects.

We know that inequality starts at birth. For many young people, this disadvantage gap widens throughout their education. While this clearly needs to be addressed much earlier on, further education offers pathways to support young people and adults to gain qualifications, skills and knowledge, often after years of being unable to access the traditional learning on offer at school.

The suggested reforms risk blocking these progression pathways by narrowing options at this crucial level.

My hope is that government ministers (including the opposition) and policy officials hear the concerns the FE sector is voicing and act on it.

I urge them to listen to the experts on the ground and to look at lessons from the past – for example, the failure of GNVQs, which were never given the kudos of being an A level alternative – and realise that change takes time to embed. 

The mistake they are making now is positioning T levels against BTECs, when in fact they should be positioned against A levels.

2025 is just around the corner. We need more time to develop a complete, long-term solution to create a system that truly recognises and rewards the diverse abilities of all learners.

Getting these reforms right is important to so many people’s lives, as well as to the wider economy. It’s imperative we get it right.

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