(Vocational) Education (reform) is over-rated and T Levels are the monster it created

Written by Chris Bayes.

Like many of my practitioner brethren, it would be fair to say my journey to becoming a widening participation (WP) practitioner was not exactly linear.  Prior to commencing a career in WP in 2007, I worked (in chronological order) as a paperboy, a factory worker, a retail assistant, a barman cum waiter, a colleague (In ‘The Asda’), a Compliance Assistant (ironic given compliance has never been a strong point of mine), Helpdesk Officer, Trainee Teacher/teacher and freelance music journalist.  It was within the latter role (which I managed to juggle alongside my early roles within WP), where I encountered the track whose lyrical content, I am paraphrasing in the title of this article. 

A lot has changed since 2008 when I wrote this review, the political landscape is almost unrecognisable.  Back in 2008, Labour had been in power for 11 years.  Although the honeymoon period experienced by Gordon Brown upon his ascension to power was well and truly over by this point.  However, I maintain that if someone had told me back then that by 2022 the Conservatives would have been back in Downing Street for over a decade and that Boris fucking Johnson would have led us out of the European Union, I would probably have shook my head in disbelief and asked you for some of what you were on.

In short, a great deal has changed in the intervening 14 years, but within the tabernacle of WP, there are some things that remain starkly similar.  Whilst undoubtedly progress has been made in certain areas of the agenda, within others the rhetoric remains frustratingly similar.  One example of this would be the lack of progress in terms of opening up access for white working class males. Another area in which advancement has been almost non-existent during my career to date would be vocational education. 

Around the time at which I still harboured ambitions of being the next Keith Cameron, Paul Morley or Stuart Maconie, the Labour government launched the 14-19 Diploma.  A qualification apparently capable of ‘Bringing learning to life’, of crossing the age-old divide between academic and vocational education and widely promoted with ministerial backing.  I can vividly recall attending a Diploma event a couple of years later at Turf Moor, Burnley at which exhibitors greatly outnumbered young people in attendance (never a good look).  Soon after, the winds of political change were afoot, a coalition government replaced New Labour in Downing Street and by 2013; the Diploma had been banished to the dustbin of history. 

I have written previously here and presented at last year’s NEON Summer Symposium about the potential parallels between the Diploma and the current government’s much vaunted ‘next level qualification’, T Levels, here.  The Symposium presentation highlighted how the BTEC qualification has been the great survivor within the vocational education space in England, remaining an integral part of the post 16 education system whilst other qualifications have come and gone or been repackaged various times.  The number of students progressing to HE having studied a BTEC has grown dramatically in recent years, increasing from 13.3% in 2008 to 24.3% in 2015.  In spite of this shift, the BTEC has remained the subject of some criticism amongst selective institutions and having worked in both Russell Groups and other ‘elite’ universities, I became accustomed to hearing snide remarks about both the qualification and the students’ accessing university via this pathway.  Therefore, one would imagine few tears would have been shed amongst elements of the sector when the government announced plans to defund BTEC qualifications (in favour of implementing T Levels) between 2023 and 2025.  However, the government clearly underestimated the strength of feeling both amongst Sixth Forms, FECs, WP teams, Student Recruitment and Admissions functions within universities.  The pushback from the sector included publications from NEON, here and here, HEPI here and most notably the Protect Student Choice campaign led by the Association of Sixth Form Colleges.  In the face of increasing pressure, one of many incumbents of the seemingly revolving hot seat of Education Secretary, Nadim Zahawi announced a retreat from the government’s initial proposals in November 2021; stating “It is quite likely we will see many BTECs and other similar applied general style qualifications continuing to play an important role in 16 to 19 education, for the foreseeable future.” 

Indeed, one of the great ironies is that the BTEC itself has undergone an extensive degree of reform (largely at the behest of the HE sector) in recent years.  This shift was designed to make the qualification more academically robust to equip those studying the reformed BTEC for the demands of studying at a greater range of universities (including elite institutions) than was the case before the marketisation of the sector.  Despite being notionally committed to making evidence-informed decisions, T Level enthusiasts within DfE have continued to champion the unproven T Level’s merits over the BTEC in a manner, which evokes memories of the Diploma amongst practitioners of a certain vintage.

The current government are committed to using vocational education as a means of widening participation.  Recent APP Variation Guidance encouraged institutions to “consider how they can develop technical routes at level 4 and 5 and contribute to the expansion of degree apprenticeships”[1].  Given that many providers have been guilty of using the Apprenticeship Levy to upskill current members of staff (many of whom already have degrees and Masters level qualifications), it remains to be seen how effectively institutions embrace this.

One of the unwitting consequences of a marketised sector has been that it has become harder for FE and HE institutions to collaborate effectively (an integral facet of a fully functional vocational system) against a backdrop of a competitive marketplace, which sets each against each other as competitors.  I speak from personal experience here, when establishing the government funded National Networks for Collaborative Outreach (NNCO) and National Collaborative Outreach Programme (NCOP) projects in Merseyside, it was striking how certain institutions behaved in complete self-interest, stating that FECs were only involved in the projects to promote their HE offering.  Taken at face level, this was correct, but effective collaboration between FECs and HEIs can and should offer much more.  However, as long as they are set against each other as ‘two tribes’, effective collaboration and policy in this space will be undermined.  Therefore, those highlighting the latest government funded iteration of collaborative outreach (UniConnect) as a mechanism for change in this space as a ‘no brainer’ would do well to recognise this.

Another interesting feature of higher education in the UK is the impact of devolution since 1997.  In essence, we now have four slightly divergent systems at play within the UK.  Presenting about the work of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ at a SRHE online conference in 2019, it was striking how at points there is limited awareness of the deviation between respective systems when a Scottish attendee expressed surprise that English FECs and HEIs were struggling to collaborate due to the fact that policy had placed them against each other as competitors.  In Scotland, there are long-standing matriculation partnerships between FE and HE (linked to industry) based around progression pathways.  The barrier to the establishment of similar arrangements in England is policy and restrictions imposed by the current fee structure.

The current Conservative administration has exhibited a strong commitment to developing technical education.  The soon to be former PM stated in 2020 that “It is one of this country’s great achievements massively to have expanded higher education but…we seem on the one hand to have too few of the right skills for the jobs our economy creates, and on the other hand too many graduates with degrees which don’t get them the jobs that they want…were they ever given the choice to look at the more practical options, the courses – just as stimulating – that lead more directly to well-paid jobs?” 

Alongside this, they seem be committed to eradicating so called ‘Micky mouse degrees’.  Such a narrowing of focus is unlikely to widen access to and participation within higher education.  In essence, the government’s mantra appears to be that certain courses and types of provision should be the preserve of certain types of people.  If you happen to be from a ‘disadvantaged’ background, they appear to be suggesting that skills based learning to be the right educational pathway to take.

The vocational education landscape in England has long been a patchy hotchpotch of frameworks and pathways, especially when you compare it with our continental neighbours.  In Germany, “vocational education has for a long time been regarded as a vital part of the overall educational system, co-existing separately but on an equal footing with higher education”[2].  The OfS are encouraging providers to “consider how the development of such provision could contribute to their access and participation while benefiting students from all backgrounds.”[3]  From analysis of data, it is clear that there is substantial correlation between ethnicity, low socio-economic status and BTEC learners.  Removing this pathway before T Levels are fully established is not only short sighted, but risks endangering much of the good work that has been done in this space over the course of the past decade.  Therefore, it is hugely important that practitioners keep the pressure on via channels such as the ‘Protect Student Choice’ campaign, through the NEON ‘Supporting Access, Success and Progression for Vocational Learners’ and by getting in touch with MPs to ensure the BTEC qualification is maintained.

[1] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/advice-on-requests-to-vary-access-and-participation-plans-2023-24/

[2] ‘Holding Talent Back? What is next for the future of Level 3?’, HEPI number 149 (2022), pp 44

[3] https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/publications/advice-on-requests-to-vary-access-and-participation-plans-2023-24/

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