There is currently some confusion around the future of post-16 qualifications in England. The government are looking to “undertake significant reform to Level 3 qualifications” in order to “create a binary system where students progress to employment, or further study, via A-Levels or the newly created T-Levels.” (Atherton, 2021). These reforms would see the removal of the BTEC qualification, a pathway that has developed over time to provide both flexibility for learners (who are unsure of their future progression route when leaving school) and a recognised pathway into higher education (HE).
My paper session, ‘Collective acts of forgetfulness? The past, present and future of vocational pathways into Higher Education’ was inspired by a paper written by Nigel Kettley, which I read during prior research into the ‘Blurred Boundaries’ existant between Student Recruitment and Widening Participation (WP). Within his paper, Kettley explores how within the field of WP research, academics can be seen to be “replicating the mistakes of the past, since there has been a collective act of forgetfulness with respect to earlier contributions” (Kettley, 2007).
In my experience, this is not limited to research, indeed such ‘collective forgetfulness’ is common within WP practice. An example of this was stated in my aforementioned paper, “many of the lessons learnt from the Aimhigher programme were seemingly forgotten during the development and set up of HEFCE’s NNCO and NCOP projects. This was recognised by a leading policy actor, who commented that ‘It [NCOP] runs counter to the way in which we have been trying to move the agenda in recent years…where we have been encouraging people to engage with schools to raise attainment’ (Key Respondent 1).” (Bayes, 2019).
Vocational Education in England has been a long-suffering victim of such ‘collective acts of forgetfulness’. Since the Education Act of 1944, successive governments of varying political persuasions have been obsessed with continual reform of the Vocational Qualification landscape, seeking to create a system in which there is ‘parity of esteem’ between academic and vocational pathways. However, in spite of multiple programmes best efforts, a chasm continues to exist between these two pathways, with the brightest and best students often being encouraged down the academic pathway.
Since its inception in 1983, the BTEC has proven itself something of a resourceful survivor amidst a policy landscape of chaos. During this time, various qualifications, which have sought to bridge the gap between academic and vocational study, have come and gone (see below Appendix 1).
APPENDIX 1: VOCATIONAL EDUCATION IN ENGLAND SINCE THE 1980S
However, the BTEC has remained in place, evolving over time into a qualification providing a pathway into employment or a recognised route into higher education (HE). Over the course of the past decade, we have seen substantial increases in the numbers accessing HE having previously studied a BTEC. Pearson, who have been a key supporter of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group since it was established in 2018, have highlighted how “The number of students progressing to university with a BTEC increased from 13.3% in 2008 to 24.3% in 2015” and “Today, around 1 in 4 students enter university having taken a BTEC National” (Pearson, 2018). Viewed in terms of raw numbers, this equates to around 100,000 students, many of whom study at mid-ranking and lower-tariff institutions, which have traditionally represented the engine of widening access. We should also not forget that the BTEC as a qualification has undergone significant reforms at the behest of the HE sector and that evidence of impact of these reforms will not be fully clear for at least another year.
The goal of the Education Act of 1944 was to create a ‘tripartite education system’. This was to consist of three distinct tiers: Grammar schools, which offered a highly academic curriculum, Secondary technical schools, designed to serve the needs of skilled industry – as Britain was still a manufacturing powerhouse at this time and thirdly Secondary modern schools. They were to offer a practical education to create pathways into ‘less skilled jobs’, but morphed into schools that offered a blended mix of academic and vocational education. The initial intention was for there to be ‘parity of esteem’ between the three tiers, but this never transpired as the system failed, largely because Secondary technical schools barely materialised. At their peak, only 2% to 3% of children attended one and the choice available to young people became one between the perceived excellence of Grammar schools and the less well-regarded Secondary alternative.
One of the main criticisms voiced in NEON’s ‘Will abolishing BTECs mean reversing widening access to higher education?’ report by practitioners who were surveyed was a fear of a return to a two tiered education system. One practitioner stated “I think having only two routes will further entrench the problems with parity of esteem, with “bright” students being pushed down the A Level route, whilst those not deemed capable of A Levels will be pushed towards T Levels and technical occupations.”. Removing BTECs would also limit the number of choices available to young people post-16. Practitioners felt the “BTEC qualification bridges the gap between the A level route and T levels and gives universities a broader range of students from which to recruit from.” (NEON, 2021). Indeed, the opportunity for students to enter HE with a blended qualification profile is one which has been broadly welcomed and removing this will set the agenda back a number of years.
There has been much fanfare around the implementation of T Levels with their arrival being described as the most ambitious post-16 education reforms since the introduction of A-levels 70 years ago. The former Conservative Education Secretary, Michael Gove commented, “courses which offer no route to higher levels of education or the prospect of meaningful employment” are “not just unacceptable but morally wrong”. However, BTECs are recognised as both an accepted route into higher education and ‘meaningful employment’.
Too often since 1945, Vocational Education policies have been driven by purely ideological means. A recent example of this was the ill-fated 14-19 Diploma introduced by the New Labour administration in 2008. The Diploma (like T Levels) was heralded as the qualification to cross the age-old divide between academic and vocational qualifications and was seen as a pathway capable of ‘Bringing learning to life’ for those who pursued this route. Despite being handsomely funded and well-supported within industry, my abiding memory of the Diploma was attending an event at Turf Moor, Burnley where there were more exhibitors than young people in attendance. Ultimately, the Diploma was a victim of the winds of political change when Labour were unseated by the Con-Dem coalition at the 2010 election and the qualification was removed soon after. As I stated in a Forum for Access and Continuing Education (FACE) blog published earlier this year, “Ultimately, those who suffered were the learners.” (Bayes, 2021) as university Admissions departments turned their back on the qualification under governmental pressure. The same could happen should the government follow through on their initial proposals to remove BTECs.
Although the Tories have nailed their colours to the mast on T Levels and the pilot phase of implementation is underway, colleagues are already decrying the difficulties of finding suitable employment partners for the placement aspect of the course and the government have felt significant pushback from the sector with multiple organisations protesting against the BTEC’s proposed removal. Could we finally be about to see policy makers take on board feedback from informed practitioners and move beyond the historical “act(s) of forgetfulness with respect to earlier contributions”? We can but live in hope.
Colleagues may already be aware of the Protect Student Choice – Don’t Scrap BTECS campaign that has been established by the Sixth Form Colleges Association. NEON is one of a number of Campaign partners and we would strongly encourage all colleagues to support this campaign, sign the related petition and share this as widely as possible.