Reply: The case to cut BTECs and applied generals is misinformed  

The ‘muddled’ case for cutting BTECs shows a lack of understanding of what employers, young people and the economy needs, writes Bill Watkin

The ‘muddled’ case for cutting BTECs shows a lack of understanding of what employers, young people and the economy needs, writes Bill Watkin

13 Feb 2023, 11:00

While I abhor the cancel culture that has emerged in recent years, and welcome open debate and the exchange of ideas as part of a process for getting to the right place in the end, I am having to work hard to remain open-minded in the face of Jon Yates’ article in Friday’s FE Week.

It is exactly this sort of muddled and ill-informed thinking that is threatening the education and social mobility opportunities available to hundreds of thousands of young people. 

It is baffling that experienced and intelligent people are still so confused about the differences between applied and technical education; between qualifications that combine the development of skills with academic learning and qualifications that lead to a specific occupation.

If we are to remain economically secure and globally competitive, the workforce needs sufficient technical skills, attested by technical qualifications; but society and the economy also need workers who have pursued applied and academic learning, attested by A levels, applied generals (AGQs) and university degrees, with a view to entering professional careers.

When Yates writes of “the government’s decision to stop funding a load of technical education courses”, is he being disingenuous or does he really think that BTECs and other AGQs, with their classroom learning and preparation for HE, are technical and serve the same purpose as (equally valid, but totally different) license to practise tech levels for example? 

If the government was genuinely trimming the large number of technical qualifications alone, would this be “making some people cross”? Of course not. 

But the fact is, the government is proposing to cut the majority of well-respected (by employers and universities) qualifications that have recently been reformed so that they are more rigorous and demanding (did you know that, Mr Yates, or is your disparagement of BTECs based on the old versions?)

They also currently provide a meaningful pathway for hundreds of thousands of young people who are ready to access level 3 education; 44 per cent of white working class 18 year-olds and 34 per cent of learners from a BAME background who go to university, do so with BTECs.

And, if BTECs are not available to these young people, what will they do instead? Entry requirements for many T Level courses are tougher than those for A levels. So middle-pathway students will not choose T Levels in significant numbers; they are more likely to choose A Levels – or become NEET. What, seriously, does Yates think they will do?

And when Yates says that an AGQ “gives children some job knowledge, but also doubles as a source of UCAS points to getting into university”, is he not aware that T Levels also attract UCAS points and that last summer, more than one in three T Level students progressed to university rather than the workplace?

Finally, the wholly unnecessary and rather puerile attempt to inject some humour into the article: “(Whisper it: They do have another purpose, which is to make Pearsons (sic) quite a lot of revenue)” suggests that Mr Yates does not understand that T Levels, as well as almost all other qualifications, are being delivered by awarding organisations that charge a fee for their product. 

Is this article misinformation or disinformation? Either way, I won’t even wrap my fish and chips in it.

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  1. Janet Ellis

    I could not agree more. A large number of students will be forced to study subjects they do not want, probably at level 2, because they will not have the entry qualifications to study T Levels. Many students who struggle with exam based qualifications have been able to move to university or employment after taking a BTEC – I do not know what they will do now.

    • Right. This is the possible nightmare scenario – that many of the kids who used to do L3 BTECs end up doing L2s instead, because A Levels and T Levels are both off-putting to them for different reasons.

      T Levels are ace. So ace, that we don’t need to turn off the alternatives. Nobody ever said “defund BTECs to protect A Levels”; so equally we don’t need to defund BTECs to protect T Levels. They are different, do their own thing and will do it brilliantly. There will always be a space in the design landscape for L3 Applied Generals, and if that space gets forcibly vacated it will just end up being refilled again over time (possibly through T Level drift, for example), though cohorts of students will pay the price of reduced provision while that inevitable realignment plays through.

  2. Derek Tilley

    Well said, If the DfE are taking advice from the likes of Mt Yates, no wonder the sixform/FE colleges have an uphill battle to offer what industry wants and more importantly what the students need . Sounds like Government (Tory) propaganda.

  3. James Moncrieff

    I have grave concerns about the DfE’s published qualifications and study programmes landscape for 16- to 19-year-olds. Young people normally choose their next education steps in Year 11 of secondary school when they are 15 year olds. I can’t see how it is right that a 15-year-old who might not want to go to university and who doesn’t do well in exam-only courses (ie A Levels) but can achieve well on coursework and modular courses (like BTECs) is forced to choose just ONE SUBJECT at 15 (either a T-Level or an apprenticeship). I think breadth of education is so important for so many young people, including those who don’t want to go to university. Many young people still need options and flexibility to change their mind (many don’t, I know, but many do…). I think specialist, single-subject courses are amazing (that’s what I did myself at 16). Why can’t a Year 11 student who doesn’t want to go to university still continue to study sport, media and business, for example, and then decide where they go next after sixth form? Just maybe, if they went into a sports career, the media and business courses they also studied will help them in their future. I think this plan will probably be an unmitigated disaster verging on a form of vandalism of many young people’s futures and will lead to more students on A Levels who aren’t happy, more failures, more NEET young people, more study programme restarts and therefore costs. Add to that the loss of confidence for those young people. Well done, DfE – you really do have a heart for non-academic students by removing breadth and choice. To me, Mr. Yates’ article is a perfect example of that low-level thinking to defend a policy and landscape that looks nice and neat, sounds ambitious and doesn’t actually work for thousands of students. Sorry to be so trolling about it, but I think this is simply unfair and unsound!