The high price of losing BTECs

Removing BTECs from the qualification options for large numbers of students will have a profound and lasting effect on those hoping to strive for something better. The success of past BTEC students provides a ready reminder of what is already lost.  But we must assume it’s a deliberate tactic of the government to divert students away from higher education and into technical jobs. There is too high a price to pay.

The news this week on the BBC and elsewhere that  Jason Arday is to become youngest ever black professor at Cambridge  might seem a milestone in itself.  But reading that Professor Arday was born with severe autism, and had many hurdles to surmount along the way, makes it an even more remarkable and heartening story.  At the age of thirty seven, he has reached the heady academic height of a chair in sociology at the third ranked university in the world.  He arrives at Cambridge via academic positions in Durham and Glasgow.

Unable to speak until age eleven, and mastering reading and writing at eighteen, he was not deterred, and his determination propelled him onwards to a career in education.

From a council estate to Cambridge via the BTec route.

Less reported is that Arday pivoted from school to a university degree via a BTEC qualification. Cambridge Faculty of Education News fills in more of the details.

He was fortunate to attend a school that could cater for his special educational needs, Southfields Community College, now Southfields Academy.  As a result he made it past two GCSEs in PE and textiles.  Then he went onto Merton College in Morden, South London to acquire a BTec. This propelled him into the University of Surrey where he completed a degree in physical education and education studies. A further postgraduate certificate of education led him to become a PE teacher. He then moved to Liverpool John Moores University to complete a PhD. All this he did whilst working part-time.

Essential support needed.

Diagnosed at three, and unable to speak until eleven, he needed a lot of family support and self determination to overcome the barriers placed in his way. 

Arday was indeed very fortunate to have family behind him, particularly his mother who was there for him after the diagnosis at the age of three. The family were not well off.  At Merton College, he also met his tutor and sports lecturer, Sandro Sandri, who offered the encouragement and the friendship needed to head all the way to postgraduate qualifications.  Without family and champions, it is hard to see how he could have succeeded so well.  Others are not so fortunate, and their numbers may be rising.  I have seen first-hand the challenges faced, and helped in the case of a similar person to Arday where the crucial role of family was needed to get over important hurdles.

There are others who succeed with help.

Ten years ago, I met a student who was also diagnosed with autism at the age of three. He did not speak until he was eight. From diagnosis to university, he was fortunate to have a strong family, especially a mother who made sure he was not written off. As a result, he turned up in my laboratory one day as part of a Master’s degree. I supervised his project after he had gained a good degree elsewhere. The support he received to achieve this was crucial.  I had already helped several students cope with either Asperger’s or autism and was at least in part prepared for the challenges he faced. He did well with a monumental effort. I soon learned of his determination to work in neuroscience and stem cell research, driven partly by his own condition. His project in my laboratory was as unrelated as could be imagined. Yet he succeeded in his plan and secured a PhD position and moved again to a well-known laboratory specialising in the area. He is now a successful cell biology scientist with a PhD. His success in three different universities tells a remarkable story.

Don’t write people off.

The lesson here is that people should not be written off at a young age. Help and encouragement, linked to adequate resources, can yield spectacular results if allowed thrive.  BTECs in England offered an alternative route and greater choice for many, and did so without closing doors.  Sadly, the T-levels, that have almost total replaced BTECs, are designed to shut the door on progress to higher education for too many students. They divide students into a technical track or academic professional track at age sixteen. But many are burdened by disadvantage and need more time and space to succeed. Instead the changes are really an exercise in ‘social engineering’ that further divides our society (see TEFS 16th August 2022 ‘With exam results looming, the government is promoting T-levels as ‘Social Engineering’).

We must ask, how many Jason Arday’s are out there missing out on a career as a result?

The author, Mike Larkin, retired from Queen’s University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.

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