With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’

With the exam results looming this week in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, there is a sense of impending doom. In the swirling confusion, the BTEC results will no doubt take a back seat. Yet many BTEC students are equally waiting for results that will decide their entry to a university this autumn. The removal of BTECs from the landscape represents a reversal of choice and embeds a crude binary choice to be made at age sixteen. They will fall between a widening crack and this is simply ‘social engineering’ of a divided society.

Record numbers of students are holding offers for universities, but many are bracing themselves for their results that might not make the grade. The so called ‘inflation’ of grades during the pandemic will come to a crashing halt as results return closer to the ‘norm’ back in 2019.  Many are students who have taken BTECs alone or in combination with A-levels. This flexibility has served well over the years and offered more choice.  But these students will be some of the last to have such options offered. Soon it will be a simple binary choice between T-levels or A-levels at age sixteen. The former is likely to lead to a vocational job at age eighteen and close off the chance of a university degree at many universities. This would appear to be the government’s plan as students are herded away from university driven careers and into technical and vocational jobs.

Indeed, a House of Commons Library report told us last November that, “The Government will create two pathways for post-16 progression. An academic route centred on A Levels is intended to lead to further study. A technical route will mean T Levels become the main qualification option for young people wanting to enter skilled employment (requiring specialist training or expertise)”. It followed an earlier research briefing from 2019 ‘T Levels: Reforms to Technical Education’. This has some potential for helping less advantaged students into the job market, but it remains to be seen if the additional funding promised in 2019 will emerge.

Who are those affected and how many?

Back in 2020, as the pandemic tightened its grip, TEFS noted that BTECs appeared to have been left out of the government’s plan to ensure assessments were completed (TEFS 5th April 2020 ‘To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question’). They had effectively relegated BTECs to an afterthought.  Yet it was fact that in 2019 the number of applicants with qualifications other that A-levels was rising, and this has continued. The latest UCAS data from 2021 reveals that over 50,000 BTEC (or BTECs combined with A-levels)  applicants  were accepted by 2021 (Table 1).  This is a considerable number with many more gaining ‘other’ qualifications (ringed).  UCAS provides a ready guide to the range of qualifications in ‘Entry requirements and alternatives to A levels | Undergraduate | UCAS’. 

With these qualifications coming under pressure, it is important to determine which students are to be most affected. Therein lies the main concern and the government knows full well what the impact will be. This is because in July its own impact assessment in its ‘Review of post-16 qualifications at level3 in England’ set out the consequences. It starkly observed that “students from disadvantaged backgrounds could also be particularly affected. This is because students from these backgrounds are disproportionately highly represented on qualifications likely to no longer be available in future.” It also accepted that there would be an effect on students with SEND (special educational needs and disability) backgrounds.  The policy appears to endorse this and moves on regardless.

A debate fuelled by deep concerns.

The realisation that the government’s determination to replace BTECs with T-levels came to a head back in July and the issue was debated in Parliament.  Concerns had been rumbling for a long time, but the full extent of the impact of this move is only now sinking for those who advocate fairness and social mobility. The debate was triggered by a petition ‘Protect student choice: do not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications’  sponsored by 108,349 signatures. The complaints were that “Students should not be forced to choose between studying A levels or T levels from the age of 16.” and “Removing BTECs will leave many students without a viable pathway after their GCSEs, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds”.  The debate itself was very well attended with MPs from all parties offering support for the retention of BTECs.  The response from the government was “The Government is streamlining and improving the quality of post-16 qualifications. We will fund a range of qualifications in addition to T Levels and A levels, which may include some BTECs.”

But the reality appears to be that there will not be any overlap with BTECs and hence no real choice.

What will not be supported to make way for T-Levels.

There is no doubt that BTECs are being removed from the post-16 educational landscape. The evidence was there in the list released in May. This shows160 qualifications will be removed from support in 2024 in the first two waves. Many popular BTECs were included and this was reported by FE Week back in May as ‘38 BTECs facing the chop to clear way for first T Levels’

But this is only the start. The ‘Review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 in England’  confirmed that the final list from waves 1 and 2 of T-Levels would be released in September. Then it promised there would be two further waves and “We will remove 16-19 funding approval from qualifications that overlap with wave 3 and 4 T Levels from 1 August 2025”. We can expect many more to lose support.

Potential for extensive damage.

It’s not only BTECs facing the chop. The list also includes a lot of longstanding qualifications, including popular and respected courses provided by City & Guilds .  This move has attracted less attention, but the wider nature of the policy should not be underestimated.  The radical changes have the potential for far reaching damage to a wide range of vocational training. Also, T-levels must attract employers to provide work experience as an integral part of the curriculum. If this backfires, it seems there will be little to fall back on.

Government dispenses with ‘doublespeak’.

Most observers of the government have become insensitive to the usual ‘double speak’. However, even this is being dispensed with. At the Higher Education Policy Institute annual meeting in June, former Higher and Further Education Minister, Michelle Donelan was questioned about the future of BTECs. She simply stated that BTECs were not being abolished and that more choice was on offer. But evidence for the opposite was there for all to see by then. No doubt she will return in a new cabinet role in the Autumn.

The reality in a crude binary system.

The reality is simply that the government will promote T-levels by removing support for any qualification that overlaps with them. Under the false promise of ‘more choice’ the situation will become that of ‘take it or leave it’.  The big decision for students will be pressed on them at age sixteen. They will have to choose between A-levels and potentially university or T-levels and a job with a very uncertain route to higher education (see government’s Introduction of T Levels). Despite UCAS allocating tariff points to T-levels, and many post-92 universities initially indicating they will accept them, T-levels are less likely to be accepted across the sector without major reforms to courses. In particular, it will not be possible to combine T-levels with A-levels. Something BTECs encouraged.

The objective appears to be a division of post-16 education into a technical route dominated by the less advantaged and an academic route dominated by the most advantaged.  If not, then it certainly is going to be the outcome as sure as night follows day.

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