Will BTEC qualifications be saved from extinction? Parent fightback forces UK Government Debate in Parliament. 33 Days and counting. Why, four and a half thousand miles away, it matters to us all – and our children.
Following our article in October last year seeking to prevent the abolition of BTEC (read “Call for UK Expats to Join the Fight to Save BTECs“), the UK government has now been forced to debate the issue in the UK parliament.
A groundswell of anger at the proposed decision to effectively abolish BTECs by withdrawing funding in favour of new T Levels, saw parents and educationalists worldwide petitioning the UK government to think again. More than 108,000 signatures were recorded as the 6-month window for the petition closed in June.
In what is widely seen as a victory for parents and educationalists, the UK government is now being forced to attend the British parliament to (try and) justify its decision and respond to calls to retain BTEC’s. The clock is now ticking: the debate will take place on 18th July this year (2022) and will be broadcast live here.
Why do BTECs matter?
At risk of simplification, British education today offers two alternative streams for Post-16 education studied in Sixth Form:
- An academic stream – culminating in the awarding of British A Level qualifications;
- A technical stream – culminating in the awarding of British BTEC qualifications. A BTEC Level 3 qualification is equivalent to 3 A Levels.
Explaining the differences is complex, but some argue the key difference is that A Levels are more theoretical and BTEC qualifications are more applied. For example, an A Level in engineering would not focus in detail on how to practically repair an engine in the real world – a BTEC does. A Levels tend to be general and theoretical, BTEC qualifications more specific and hands-on. For example, there is no equivalent A Level to the BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma in Advanced Manufacturing Engineering (Motorsport) – a qualification developed in conjunction with the British F1 sector. In reality, there is often a mixture of both skills in both qualifications – they are just generally more of one in each type of qualification.
Both qualifications are equally demanding – but in different ways. To understand the demands of a BTEC, we have included a specification of BTEC Engineering subjects below:Pearson-BTEC-L3-AME-Knowledge-specification
Historically, A Level students would attend Universities and technical stream students Polytechnics. Today, Technical Colleges have all but disappeared, their being renamed Universities. Both streams are awarded degrees, distinguishable, if at all, by only their subject matter. The prejudice against BTECs and technical stream subjects has long ago disappeared, perpetuated usually by class and vested interests. Many of the most outspoken proponents of BTEC qualifications were tellingly schools that focused on A Levels and industry – many believed it quite ludicrous that technically gifted students were being pushed into studying academic qualifications whose logical outcome was research.
SchoolsCompared has long campaigned for all UK curriculum schools in the UAE to offer both streams. There is no way for any school (or parent) to be able, with certainty, to know whether a child will be more naturally academic or technical when they join a school at Primary phases.
Without offering both alternative qualification pathways, children are forced to study and sit for qualifications that are less relevant to their abilities or aspirations, or leave a school and their peer groups, to move to a school that does offer both pathways.
Equally we have campaigned in International Baccalaureate schools for both IB pathways to be offered, in this case its academic stream (the International Baccalaureate Diploma) and technical stream (the International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme). Tellingly, more than 99% of International Baccalaureate technical stream qualifications awarded each year see IB students studying for a BTEC qualification.
Many too argue today that BTEC qualifications are actually more economically important than A Levels – there are major staff shortages in multiple technical industries in the UK, for example, because of the push of the Blair government to push all children to attend university, rather than directly graduate to work within technical industries.
Today too, many see paid apprenticeships that include university study as a better option for students as it sees students working directly in industry from Day One – and avoids students incurring the considerable debt of attending university, in some cases amounting to debts in excess of £100,000 on graduation. Michael Lambert, Headmaster of Dubai College, a powerful proponent of gold-standard A Levels, alerted Dubai College families to exactly this point earlier this year. These sorts of apprenticeships are equally open to students with a strong A Level or BTEC background.
Whilst there are detractors on both sides, it is increasingly now accepted that we need both types of qualification – and both must be equally weighted.
Finally, the risks for the IB CrP programme could be even more severe – it is hard to see how T Levels would fit anywhere near so easily within its programme.
So why are BTEC qualifications at risk?
The UK government has developed a new technical stream qualification called T Levels, named deliberately to match its academic equivalent A Levels. To date, these are not available in the UAE. In the UK, to date, 10 T Levels are available:
- Building Services Engineering for Construction
- Design, Surveying and Planning for Construction
- Digital Business Services
- Digital Production, Design and Development
- Digital Support Services
- Education and Childcare
- Healthcare Science
- Onsite Construction
From September this year (2022), the following T Levels are being launched:
- Design and Development for Engineering and Manufacturing
- Engineering, Manufacturing, Processing and Control
- Maintenance, Installation and Repair for Engineering and Manufacturing
- Management and Administration
From September 2023, a further seven T Levels are being made available
- Agriculture, Land Management and Production
- Animal Care and Management
- Craft and Design
- Hairdressing, Barbering and Beauty Therapy
- Media, Broadcast and Production
- Legal Services
Like BTECs, T Levels are designed in association with industry. Like BTEC qualifications and A Levels, they run over two years and are sat by students between the ages of 16 years and 18 years. T Levels include a mandatory 20% of student’s time being spent within the relevant industry, rather than school or college. T Levels are designed to enable students to progress to university, or take on specialist roles within industry immediately upon graduation. A Levels, as a general rule, are an intermediate qualification – they are a pre-qualifier for university entry. Because the skills taught at A Level are more theoretical and general, they do not equip students with the the same level of specialist skills to be able to enter employment directly and be “up and running.” This is a simplification, but is meaningful.
So if T Levels replace BTEC, what is the issue?
If T Levels existed with the breadth of subject pathways available within BTEC, there would be no issue. But that is not the case today. As above, even by 2023, there will only be 23 subjects offered at T Levels – this set against hundreds offered by BTEC.
SchoolsCompared has long campaigned for schools to not only increase the qualification pathways they offer students – but also, equally important, the breadth of subject pathways. Increased choice in both is the only way a school can maximise its ability to meet the individual needs, ambitions, gifts, skills and potential of the children and students under its care.
An academic student fascinated by political science, for example, is being let down by a school that does not offer an A Level in Government and Politics.
This is just one subject very rarely available in UAE schools.
The issue is cost. The more subject and qualification pathways a school offers its students, the higher the costs it faces, particularly in recruiting specialist teachers, but also in facilities.
This is why, as part of the Top Schools Awards each year, we look closely at both the breadth of qualification and subject pathways offered by schools. To take one example, currently only The British School Al Khubairat in Abu Dhabi offers a BTEC in engineering. Excepting for the very creditable introduction by GEMS International School Al Khail of its engineering-related International Baccalaureate Career-related Programme in Aviation, students in Dubai have no current means of studying in this, or a related subject or pathway. In our view this is not only hugely creditable for both BSAK and GEMS International, but also and equally a warning shot across the bough that current provision could be better, notwithstanding the overall outstanding quality of education today available in UAE schools.
What does this mean for parents?
The key takeaway is that parents should always interrogate post 16 breadth provision at schools they are considering for their children – even from Primary phases. Parents need to ask whether both (1) academic and technical stream pathways are available at their shortlisted schools – and, (2) look at the breadth of subject choices on offer. The bigger the choice, the more likely it is that children, as they progress at the school, will have the opportunities open to them that fit their needs, potential, ambitions, skills and gifts.
In practice, this also means that we all need BTEC qualifications to be protected. If we lose BTEC, we lose choice. Children will see their life chances restricted. Doors will be closed. It may well be, probably decades from now, that T Levels will build up an equivalent breadth of opportunity for children, but it is nowhere near being able to offer that now.
Closing opportunities for our children cannot be justified. This is why BTECs must be fought for. By forcing the UK government to debate the issue parents have secured a small victory – but it will be pyrrhic if the government does not U turn completely on its current course to restrict technical stream education choice to relatively a very few T Levels.
The stakes could not be higher. Abolishing BTECs would seriously damage British education, restrict the life chances of our children, badly hurt industry – and would cost an entire generation a future that previous and future generations will see as a given.
The distant, seemingly arcane, decision-making, some four and a half thousand miles away from us, by 650 equally distant members of the British parliament on the 18th July matters, then, to all of us as parents, in, or seeking, either a British or IB education, here in the UAE.
Watch this space – and hope.
Expert opinion on the IB Career-related Programme can be read here.
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