If BTECs continue to be perceived as easier, institutions will always be tempted to teach them, says Ed Reza Schwitzer
Government gets a lot wrong. I worked in the Department for Education for six years, and for every new policy we introduced there was always a group that disagreed (and it was sometimes proved right).
But the skills agenda is an exception. You struggle to find people who disagree that England needs to dramatically improve its technical education. Complaining that we treat vocational professions as second class is a bit like complaining about the weather.
A-levels remain the default route for academically minded children. But apprenticeships are increasingly part of the mainstream – 80 per cent of time spent on the job and 20 per cent on training.
The challenge is whether 16 is too early for young adults to make a binary decision between academia or a vocation. It’s a question even high-performing technical education systems grapple with.
Enter T Levels. These blend the two, keeping learners’ choices open.
T Levels flip the 80/20 proportions, with 80 per cent of time spent in education and training, and 20 per cent on the job.
In principle, great.
But much of the criticism has centred around delivery.
It’s fair to say that the DfE initially shared some of these reservations. Jonathan Slater, the department’s former permanent secretary, took the rare step of asking for a “letter of direction” from Damien Hinds, the then-education secretary (read: “you need to publicly tell me to do this, because I don’t think it’s doable”).
Detractors also point to the difficulty of sourcing work placements that total 45 days.
It’s right that the permanent secretary seek additional clarity when concerned about the effective use of public money.
Shouldn’t we commend politicians for injecting some urgency?
But given decades of heel-dragging on vocational education from the political and Whitehall class (which, let’s be honest, wasn’t educated in FE colleges), shouldn’t we commend politicians for injecting some urgency?
The broader challenge from the sector on delivery is right, but not insurmountable.
The delivery of work placements definetely will be difficult.
You don’t want a scarcity of placements, leading to a poor quality experience, with learners doing the photocopying and coffee rather than developing new skills.
Much of this criticism is informed by research the department itself commissioned. In layman’s terms, it finds that subjects that are easy to find placements, such as hair and beauty, “have a long history of offering young people work experience” and tend to be local.
Conversely, “digital and creative and design routes [were] the most difficult” because they have neither a track record of work experience nor much local availability.
But the fact it’s hard is exactly why it needs to be done.
If T Levels gave us the same work experience opportunities as before, what would be the point?
We need providers to link to industries such as tech and design if we’re to genuinely revolutionise the system and put it on a par with A-levels.
To get there, T Levels have a classic delivery problem – critical mass.
Once employers really understand what T Levels are about, it will be easier for them to offer placements (and post-Covid, location should be less of a barrier).
But to get there, you need enough students doing T Levels. Fortunately, this is in employers’ interests, as they will benefit most from higher quality entrants to their industries.
It’s also true that the blended approach behind T Levels will put greater onus on apprenticeships to deliver the fully vocational route.
Which leads us to the final criticism, around BTECs. I sympathise with educators standing by qualifications they teach.
But for T Levels to change things for the better, they must have the numbers going through them to build that critical mass.
And, whether true or not, if BTECs are perceived as easier, their existence will always tempt institutions to use that route.
If the department gets it right, this could be a big step forward in truly fixing our skills problem.