The secretary of state for education has told MPs he is deferring plans to withdraw funding from many BTecs and level-three qualifications for a year.
Nadhim Zahawi announced the postponement during the second reading of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill in the House of Commons on 15 November.
“I am clear that T-levels and A-levels should be front and centre of the level 3 landscape, but I am convinced that we need other qualifications alongside them, many of which exist now and play a valuable role in supporting good outcomes for students. It is quite likely that many BTecs and similar applied general-style qualifications will continue to play an important role in 16-to-19 education for the foreseeable future,” said the education secretary.
He continued: “Our reforms to the qualifications landscape are rightly ambitious, but we know that we would be wrong to push too hard and risk compromising quality. That is why I am announcing today that we have decided to allow an extra year before our reform timetable is implemented. The extra year will allow us to continue to work hard to support the growth of T-levels and give more notice to providers, awarding organisations, employers, students and parents, so that they can prepare for the changes.”
Where there is duplication and lower quality, we need to remove lower quality; that does not mean getting rid of high-quality BTecs
– Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary
In July, ministers announced plans to remove funding from post-16 courses, such as many BTecs, that are of “poor quality” or duplicate skills or content provided in apprenticeships and T-Level and A-level qualifications, which “will become the main progression options after GCSEs” under the new post-16 education system. The policy was set to begin in 2023 and complete by 2025, offering what ministers promise will be “clearer qualification and training routes” for young people after key stage four. The withdrawal of funding will now start in 2024.
The government began to phase in T-levels in 2020; 10 of the 24 planned have been launched so far. During the Skills Bill debate, some MPs questioned whether a 12-month delay was sufficient to achieve the necessary growth in T-levels required for Mr Zahawi’s plan.
The National Education Opportunities Network (NEON), led by Prof Graeme Atherton, published a report that argued strongly against the BTec cull, warning, “it is possible that the progress made in widening access to HE over the last 10 years amongst those from low participation neighbourhoods may disappear“. NEON warned students from backgrounds and parts of the country traditionally underrepresented in HE – like white working-class and Black students – are more likely to enter HE with BTecs.
“The important thing to remember is that the Sainsbury review was clear that for T-levels to succeed, where there is duplication and lower quality, we need to remove lower quality; that does not mean getting rid of high-quality BTecs,” Mr Zahawi said.
The minister added the decision to defund a raft of level three qualifications could be achieved “without kicking the ladder of opportunity away from anyone who deserves that opportunity”.
Mr Zahawi also announced that the government would drop the requirement that T-level students complete a level 2 qualification in English and maths. This policy put students off T-levels and was out of step with the rules for equivalent level 3s, like A-levels, he said. The reversals would “ensure that talented young people with more diverse strengths are not arbitrarily shut out from rewarding careers in sectors such as construction, catering and healthcare”, Mr Zahawi added.
Labour shadow education secretary Kate Green called on the education secretary to “say a little more about how they intend T-levels to be a route to higher education”.
“The Secretary of State [said] tonight that it will be important to keep open routes to university that include vocational qualifications such as T-levels. This comes as a surprise to the Labour front-bench team, and I think it will come as a surprise to universities, which have not necessarily signed up to admit students on the basis of T-level results,” Ms Green continued. Many Russell Group universities have yet to announce whether they will accept T-levels for undergraduate study.
Ms Green said the government should stop delaying its plans for post-18 education and funding following the Augar review. “Current and future students have seen regular backroom briefings to the press about potential fee cuts to and attacks on the quality of their courses, and regressive changes to their loan repayments that will leave them even worse off,” she said.
Chris Skidmore, a former universities minister, said the government should mandate the involvement of HE providers in the new local skills improvement partnerships.
Quoting Abraham Lincoln, Mr Skidmore said: “‘You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.’ I think that that applies when we look at the role of universities and further education colleges. We need them to work together in a sustainable ecosystem. We cannot allow the Bill to divide and rule, or somehow to allow for FE colleges to be compared unfavourably or favourably against universities.”