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Why we must protect student choice and retain BTEC qualifications

Though BTECs have had a reprieve the future still looks uncertain. James Kewin and Ellie Russell ask why the government is committed to defunding popular qualifications
This article is more than 2 years old

James Kewin is Deputy Chief Executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association

Ellie Russell is the Deputy Head of Policy at University Alliance

The Sixth Form Colleges Association (SFCA) and University Alliance have serious concerns about the government’s plan to remove funding for most BTEC qualifications.

We are not alone.

In October 2021, a cross-party group of 118 MPs and peers wrote to the Secretary of State setting out their concerns that the government’s plan will leave many students without a viable pathway after their GCSEs”. 86 per cent of respondents to the government’s consultation on post-16 qualifications disagreed with the plan to remove funding for qualifications that are deemed to overlap with A levels or T levels. And on 14 January, our Protect Student Choice petition secured the 100,000 signatures required to trigger a debate in parliament.

Both of our organisations are partners in the Protect Student Choice campaign – a coalition of 28 organisations from across the school, college and university sectors, united in the belief that removing funding for most BTECs would be disastrous for young people. It is hard to think of a government proposal in recent years that has provoked such universal opposition from such a broad range of organisations.

A delay, not a decision

Nadhim Zahawi has made a welcome commitment to making evidence-based decisions on the future of Level 3 qualifications, and in November, the campaign saw limited success when the Department for Education confirmed the plan to defund BTECs would be delayed by a year. But the direction of travel remains the same.

Our campaign estimates that at least 30 per cent of the 864,304 16 to 18 year olds studying a Level 3 qualification in England are pursuing one or more BTEC qualifications. The department’s own equalities impact assessment concluded that disadvantaged young people have the most to lose, stating:

Those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males [are] disproportionately likely to be affected.

One of our main concerns is that replacing the current three-route model of Level 3 qualifications – A levels, BTECs, technical qualifications – with a two-route model of A levels and T levels will remove an effective and well-established pathway to higher education. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44 per cent of white working-class students that enter university studied at least one BTEC and 37 per cent of Black students enter with only BTEC qualifications.

So the government is embarking on an education reform that will further disadvantage already disadvantaged students, reverse recent progress made in widening participation and (to use a specific example from one sector) prevent thousands of working-class students from training to be nurses and healthcare workers. The question is – why?

Why make the change?

It is no secret that the government wants to boost the number of students taking T levels. The latest data shows that just 6,750 of the 1.1 million 16-19 year olds in full time education are enrolled on one of these courses, following £482m of investment. The government believes that scrapping most BTECs will drive up T level enrolments.

In a startling admission last year, DfE minister Baroness Barran said it was necessary to remove “competing qualifications” in order to make a success of T levels. We do not agree. T levels and BTECs are different qualifications and it is perfectly possible, and beneficial, for both to operate alongside A levels in a three-route qualification system.

And what about progression beyond Level 3? As the minister with joint responsibility for post-16 strategy is also considering reforms to post-18 education, including minimum entry thresholds, the post-16 reforms cannot be looked at in isolation.

What are T levels really for?

One of the great strengths of BTECs is helping young people, and particularly disadvantaged young people, to progress to higher education. T levels were originally designed as a route into skilled employment, but the government is increasingly presenting them as a path into higher education.

The updated T Level action plan gives equal weight to progression to further study (a higher level apprenticeship, higher technical qualifications, or higher education) and to progression into skilled employment. DfE has also put considerable effort into creating a non-exhaustive list of HE providers that have confirmed they will consider T Levels for entry on to at least one course at their institution.

With record numbers due to enter higher education this year, students and their families will want to be reassured that taking one of these new qualifications will not limit their future choices, and will question why BTECs – as a well-understood route to higher education – are being removed.

On the whole, students are making rational, informed choices about what to study in both the sixth form and at university. Narrowing the range of options available to young people would be disastrous for social mobility and widening participation. SFCA, University Alliance and the other 26 partners in our campaign will continue to make the case that we need to protect student choice, and in particular to ensure that BTECs continue to play a major role in the qualifications landscape.

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