Post-16 education becoming a ‘dog’s breakfast’

A partial U-turn on the fate of post-16 education by the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi, earlier this week has created a ‘dog’s breakfast’ of choices for students in an already confused system. The plan to replace the more flexible BTECs with the ‘take it or leave it’ T-level offering has been delayed and may even be watered down to become ineffective. The criticism from many quarters has been considerable and employers seem silent on the issue. T-levels depend on employer placements and input that could present a bottle neck in their success. Also, their purpose is clearly to deter students from university and prepare them for employment at eighteen instead. Entering a closed training regime from sixteen is likely to block a route to most universities and be less flexible than the BTECs that could be taken alongside A-levels. This will create and even more divided society ruled by a closed shop ‘university elite’ ruling the rest of us. T-levels are a crude weapon of ‘social engineering’ that will restrict choice and leave a scar on the aspirations of students for generations.

There is rising disquiet about the long-term impact of the introduction of T-levels on access to higher education in England.  This was voiced very firmly in The Guardian on Saturday with ‘BTEC cull could deter working-class students from nursing, universities fear’. But the potential problems when replacing BTECs with the new T-levels run far deeper than the concerns of universities in that they will deter students from many more Higher Education courses and careers. By the time the second reading of the ‘Skills and Post-16 Education Bill’ started in parliament on Monday, there had been a partial U-turn.

The Bill had been progressing through parliament from the Lords since May of this year. It reached its second reading on Monday with a surprise announcement from the Education Secretary, Nadhim Zahawi and reported in the Guardian as ‘Government pauses plan to abolish technical qualifications’.  This was partially driven by rising disquiet about the negative social implications of T-levels. The basis of this is well explained by the campaign ‘Protect Student Choice – Don’t Scrap BTECs’. Their petition to parliament is gaining traction as fury mounts, ‘Protect student choice: do not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications’.

Sowing the seeds of confusion and a dog’s breakfast.

On Monday, at the Second Reading debate for the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill,  it seemed Zahawi had a change of heart about the value of BTECs. This is despite him sowing the seeds of confusion by starting with, “I am clear that T-levels and A-levels should be front and centre of the level 3 landscape”. Then he relented with “but I am convinced that we need other qualifications alongside them” and “It is quite likely that many BTECs and similar applied general-style qualifications will continue to play an important role in 16-to-19 education for the foreseeable future”. This created confusion and an incredibly complex ‘dog’s breakfast’ offering of courses arising from the initial aim to make the post-16 qualifications “simpler”.

“The choices available after completing GCSEs or other level 2 qualifications will be simpler, offering clear progression routes that will help them realise their ambitions”.

This could not be further from the truth as the policy unfolds.

He continued: “It is quite likely we will see many BTECS and other similar applied general-style qualifications continuing to play an important role in 16-19 education, for the foreseeable future.” But this was qualified in a vague and unspecified way with “We are not getting rid of BTECs”. But he means only retaining “high-quality BTECs”.  This is totally confusing for the colleges trying to do the best for their students. It is muddled and will cause more harm than good.

Change was in the pipeline for some time.

It became clear earlier this year that the Department for Education (DfE) was to remove funding for any BTecs that overlapped with T-levels that would “no longer receive public funding”.  A policy statement  from the DfE back in July 2021, ‘Review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England’, made it crystal clear that apprenticeships, A-levels and T-levels would be the main progression options after GCSEs. These are to be “As part of an employer-led skills system”.

The idea that there might be some unspecified courses allowed with, “We will fund a small range of high-quality qualifications that should typically be taken alongside A levels” is confusing. Surely BTECs already do this for many students.

The statement that the policy would address an issue that “Too many current qualifications lead to students’ options for Higher Education progression being narrowed” is a classic example of ‘doublespeak’. Feeding the term ‘Mickey Mouse degrees’ to the press, and reports such as ‘No-one will mourn the decline of Mickey Mouse degrees’, is at odds with the reaction elsewhere. The idea of Disney inspired degrees is wearing very thin.

What is really happening is that replacing BTECs with T-levels removes one common route to Higher Education at a stroke.

T-levels as a university deterrent.

The core of the problem is that T-levels are a ‘take it or leave it’ option. They are designed to train students to hit the job market from eighteen, not to seek a university place. This is very apparent in government announcements (updated 4th November 2021) on the government T-level www site. The requirement for placements with employers is there to smooth this path and attract students keen to start work sooner. Those from less well-off family backgrounds will find this more attractive than those from families with resources to invest in a longer-term plan for success.

The main feature of T-levels is they leave no option to do A-levels alongside them and this has a devastating impact on students wishing to change their minds later. Many routes become closed off from sixteen.  

Indeed, they are not likely to lead to a university education since they are not really intended to to that. Most ‘traditional’ universities will shun the qualification simply on the grounds that it does not prepare students for their courses. Despite UCAS points being attached to T-levels, the A-level ‘gold standard’ will prevail. The UCAS advice, What Are T Levels? | Your Questions Answered, makes this very clear with, Following GCSEs, students will have the option to study one of the following pathways: T Levels, apprenticeship, A levels”

Narrowing options.

BTECs have been around for over ten years and offer a considerable degree of flexibility for sixteen-year-olds unsure of what would be best for them. The main advantage is that they can be taken alongside A-levels. This gives flexibility to both students, universities, and employers. There was no closing off any route at sixteen. This is born out by the statistics as reported by TEFS with ‘To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question’ (5th April 2020). Figure 1 is taken from that posting and illustrates the number of students entering university in the UK with BTECs alone or in combination with A-levels between 2008 and 2019. Closing this route is astonishing and clearly designed to deter students from university.

Taking an insider’s ‘no brainer’ view.

To illustrate the dilemma for a sixteen year old, I ask the question, what would a student interested in science do if growing up in a ‘working class family in the CV2 area of Coventry, as I did many years ago?  T-levels might look attractive and be worthy of investigation. However, the idea would fade fast as the reality sinks in.  Firstly, the nearest T-level provider is at Leicester College.  This means travel on multiple buses or rail taking around 90 minutes each way. The cost is also prohibitive in time and money. I had a part-time job from sixteen and this would strip out my only income and compete with study time too much. Then Leicester College, although billed on the government www site  as T-level science, turns out to be combined health and science available this year. But the career options seem strangely limited anyway on the government  Science T Levels site as “Food Manufacturing Inspector, Laboratory Technician or Metrologist”.

This looks too limited, and the constraints of T-levels would make a ‘no brainer’ decision inevitable.  Alternatively, Coventry College does not offer T-levels and it is close by and accessible on a bicycle (Leicester involves the M69). It offers a wide range of BTECs including its BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Science  or Level 3 Access to Higher Education (Science) – Core Science . The choice is obvious.

Universities and T-levels.

Bearing in mind that T-levels are not designed to be a route to university, it comes as no surprise that most universities are wary of what might happen to students who enter with the two-year T-level qualification alone. They would need to assess the curriculum carefully and would fear major gaps appearing.

Back in 2018, it was reported by TES that a few universities would accept T- levels, thereby keeping that route open. This included an exception cited in the  Russell Group as the University of Liverpool. Now it seems that is no longer the case. On T-level Qualifications this year, the University of Liverpool, Entry requirements and qualifications,  notes that “The new T-level qualifications are due to be introduced for first teaching from September 2020, with the first students offering T-levels applying to university in the autumn of 2022. When programme specifications and sample assessment materials become available, the University will scrutinise these via its Qualifications Group and will issue a statement as to their acceptability at the earliest possible opportunity”. This doesn’t sound promising. 

In contrast, the university of Liverpool is more positive about BTECs with, “For the majority of programmes BTEC National Extended Diploma, BTEC Diploma plus one A level and BTEC National Extended Certificate plus two A levels will be considered however there may be subject requirements depending on the programme.  In some cases the subject requirement may only be considered if it is being studied at A level”.

Lessons from the past.

Bringing employers into the provision of post-16 education is not a new idea. The severe skills deficit after World War 2 became a major problem for the UK. Yet it took  nearly ten years for this to become fully recognised. The White Paper on Technical Education of 1956 described a crisis in the state of technical education. There was an urgent need to increase the supply of trained ‘manpower’ at all levels of technological expertise. There was little choice. The same might be said now. The policies of the last ten years seem to have recreated a similar problem in 2021 as technical colleges lost funding and universities expanded in a highly unregulated way.

With the Robbin’s Report in the intervening period, it took a new government in 1964 to make the massive changes needed. The outgoing government had pushed through the establishment of ‘Industrial Training Boards’ set up through the ‘Industrial Training Act’ of 1964 before the election that year. This was an attempt to involve employers in the education delivered by local colleges.

However, the heavy burden placed upon industry in making the Industrial Training Boards work was unlikely to be enough and events overtook the plan fast. The inevitable result was the founding of the Polytechnics that mostly emerged from the Colleges of Advanced Technology (CATs) (The Cabinet Papers | Colleges and polytechnics. nationalarchives.gov.uk).  By May of 1966, the white paper ‘Higher Education within the Further Education System’ emerged from a new government and real change happened.

A two-track social hierarchy is emerging.

The priorities of the government on the surface appear to be to improve the job prospects of many less well-off students. However, it is accompanied by a push to divert them away from the ‘traditional’ universities into jobs at eighteen or more training.  If fees are cut in the upcoming Augar response, then most post-92 universities will have to react fast as they revert to their former role when they were Polytechnics. Their Arts and Humanities degrees will fade away in the process.  But this will restrict choice for less well-off students and drive a bigger wedge between the technically trained and those entering the ‘elite’ universities. It risks our society becoming further entrenched as social and economic segregation to an even greater depth. It’s ‘social engineering’ whatever else you call it.

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