Why is the government wrecking its own reforms to technical education?

As demand for "gold standard" T levels atrophies in the face of news that they'll be replaced, Johnny Rich laments an obsession with killing off BTECs.

Johnny Rich is Chief Executive of outreach organisation Push, and of the Engineering Professors’ Council, and a consultant.

The government’s strategy on Level 3 technical education is broken and it’s the government what broke it.

Over the past couple of years – and across many Education Secretaries – it has been determinedly pursuing a plan to defund BTECs in order to prop up T levels. It’s like demolishing your house, so your shed will grow. It won’t. And now you’re homeless.

That was all bad enough – but it was Sunak’s hurried conference announcement of an intention to replace everything at Level 3 with the Advanced British Standard that really holed T levels under the water line – and removing BTECs is not going to save them. Instead, it will leave a generation without vocational options.

Given that this government has talked vociferously about the need for technical pathways, this is painfully ironic. The Conservatives, albeit undeliberately, have done more to defund or undermine such routes than to create them.

Something to say

For the sake of having a big announcement at his party conference (or at least an announcement that’s more positive than the HS2 U-turn), Sunak went all-in on his maths-to-18 idea by announcing the Advanced British Standard (ABS) – without thinking through the damage that that would do to T levels.

I don’t disagree with the idea of ABS in theory, although I preferred the version in the Tomlinson Review 19 years ago which Labour bottled on. But this was the wrong announcement at the wrong time on all fronts.

Firstly, no one – not even education policy geeks like me – was thinking “You know what this country needs? A level reform.” Politically, it’s a dead end, particularly as no one – probably not even Sunak – seriously thinks he’ll be around in two years to see it through, let alone in ten.

Meanwhile, to us geeks who do care about Level 3 qualifications, it seemed blithely and awkwardly out of touch with the far more pressing issues that stand in the way of such reform – most notably a lack of teachers. It was meant to seem visionary. It seemed blind.

Secondly, the chilling effect his words will have had on T levels was both predictable and dire. T levels face (at least) three big hurdles – finding students who want to do them, finding schools/colleges who want to teach them, and finding employers who want to provide the 45-day placements.

For the sake of something to say to people who were going to vote for him anyway, the prime minister instantly made each of those hurdles higher.

What 16 year old who is well enough advised to know about the existence of T levels is not also going to be advised to think twice about a new qualification whose future is uncertain? After all, would you want a qualification that soon no one will recognise on your CV?

What school/college is going to invest the time, effort and money developing a new programme that’s clearly, at the least, going to be radically redesigned almost as soon as it’s up and running – especially problematic given the need to establish employer relationships.

What employer is going to get involved in a scheme that’s a lot of time and effort to set up and which doesn’t look like it’s going to last? Especially one where the benefits compared to offering apprenticeships are minimal in the first place?

Searching for a backbone

So let us pity poor skills minister Robert Halfon – who, after Sunak’s bombshell, had to mount the stump to insist that his boss had not just announced that the government was abandoning support for DfE’s flagship innovation of the past five years.

This was not an HS2-style end of the line for T levels, he protested, but rather, reformed T levels would be “the backbone” of the new ABS qualifications.

I’m sure it was just a lack of space that prevented him from explaining that the new ABS would shrink T levels (which are, by design, not to be studied alongside other qualifications) so they can studied together with academic A level-style subjects – which means that, post-reform, the T levels would look far more like, um, the BTECs that have run successfully for over 50 years and which are the only vocational qualification of the past century that has stood the test of time.

These are the same BTECs that the government is currently defunding. 50,000 students currently do those courses. When they disappear, where will the next generation of students like them go? To the newly devalued T levels?

So far just two-thirds of the intended 24 T level pathways have even recruited any students. On those T levels that do exist, just 10,200 students started in 2022 and, according to the Association of Colleges, recruitment was held back by jaundiced student enthusiasm. Mary Curnock Cook recently suggested that demand may be slipping further.

Is there any part of this that really suggests there is about to be a five-fold increase in the uptake of T levels in the wake of the Prime Minister reading their death rites? So what will happen to the hundreds of thousands of 16 year olds a year who normally start a vocational (aka technical) qualification instead?

They won’t want to do T levels, even if their college offers them (which will depend on the availability of local employers). They won’t be able to do BTECs because they’re being defunded. And they’re unlikely to get an apprenticeship – as the number of people starting intermediate level apprenticeships has plummeted from 298k in 2014-15 to 91k last year. Competition for those limited opportunities will be ever stiffer, especially in deprived areas where they’re most needed.

Moreover, while the employment outcomes from apprenticeships are good for those who complete (having often endured less than minimum wage), the completion rates make depressing reading. They also make university drop-out rates look good by comparison.

Choices in short supply

For those for whom A levels aren’t right, there will be few places to turn. The damage that defunding BTECs is doing will lead to a generation of NEETs (Not in Education, Employment or Training) – the same generation whose education was most ravaged by the pandemic.

Cynics may say that the professed devotion to technical education was all a deliberate ploy to undermine demand for university places and so cap treasury spending on higher education. They may even say the government was well aware that this would harm access to higher education for disadvantaged school-leavers.

I disagree. I think the government wanted to create a high-value alternative to A levels leading to degrees, but they messed up – failing to learn the lessons of many failed experiments of the past (NVQs, Diplomas, vocational A levels, etc).

They may have thought the lesson was that those past experiments failed because they were outcompeted by BTECs. So they took the axe to BTECs, only to discover there’s nothing left.

For all the talk of the need for “parity of esteem”, and the unfounded slurs about the value of academic pathways leading to so-called “rip-off” degrees, it seems this government will leave technical education in a far worse position than it inherited – which was itself never good enough.

2 responses to “Why is the government wrecking its own reforms to technical education?

  1. An excellent overview, only one point. Assessment methods play an important part in education, BTEC’s and C&G’s level 3 quals offer a proven, combined exam and continuous assessment which is tailored for evidencing technical knowledge.

  2. For the record, I should clarify two of the figures I quoted:
    • I said “50,000 student currently do those courses”. I am referring to the BTECs and other courses that are being defunded (see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-67132740). About 250k students have done BTEC Nationals (Level 3) each year in recent years, with another 200k taking the lower level BTEC Firsts. That compares to just under 250k a year doing A levels.
    • I said that Intermediate Level apprenticeships had fallen from 298k (2014/15) to 91k (2021/22). While this is true, it would have been fairer for me to use the data for Advanced Level (ie. Level 3), which have fallen from 182k to 147k – a drop of a fifth (as opposed to two-thirds for Level 2 apprenticeships). The point I was making, however, still stands.

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