BTECs: Reforms risk 155k students ‘falling through the gap’

Sharp drop in applied general qualifications and slow growth of T-levels will have 'calamitous impact', report warns

Sharp drop in applied general qualifications and slow growth of T-levels will have 'calamitous impact', report warns

At least 155,000 young people will be left without a suitable post-16 course from 2026 as a result of the government’s plan to axe most BTECs, new analysis suggests.

Experts predict a sharp drop in the number of applied general qualifications, coupled with slow growth in the number of students taking their replacement T-levels will lead to one in eight sixth formers “falling through the gap”.

First-of-their-kind projections to measure the scale of the impact of ministers’ controversial level 3 reforms have been released today by the Protect Student Choice campaign, in the absence of any official modelling from government.

Robert Halfon
Robert Halfon

In a scathing report, the campaign also accused ministers of “playing fast and loose” with data by using it in a “partial and misleading” way to justify their plans.

But skills minister Robert Halfon defended the plans, saying his government “no longer incentivise courses like self-tanning, balloon artistry and pole fitness instructing – as the last government did.

“We’ve worked hand in glove with hundreds of employers to rebuild the entire skills system. Alternative qualifications including BTECs will continue, however, we will be removing those where there is poor uptake, inadequate outcomes, or overlap with our world-class T-levels.”

‘Calamitous impact’ of reforms revealed

The DfE wants a streamlined system for students finishing their GCSEs which pushes them to study either A-levels, T Levels, or an apprenticeship from 2025.

Alternative applied general qualifications (AGQs) like Pearson’s popular BTECs will only get funding from this point if they do not overlap with the other qualifications and pass a strict approvals process.

A freedom of information request by the Sixth Form Colleges Association, which leads the Protect Student Choice campaign, found there were 281,260 students studying at least one level 3 AGQ in 2022-23, and 15,410 were studying a T-level.

The association’s report warned that AGQ numbers will fall rapidly and significantly.

191,257 students are studying qualifications that the government has already deemed to be ineligible for reapproval and will scrap by 2026. The remaining 90,003 are studying qualifications that the government will consider reapproving.

The SFCA predicted that linear growth – a steady increase based on the three years of student numbers available – in T-level learners was the most likely trend, which would lead to 51,482 enrolments by 2026.

Analysis indicates at least 155,185 students – around 13 per cent of sixth formers in England – are currently enrolled on an AGQ that will be scrapped and will not be able to enrol on a T-level if growth follows the SFCA’s linear projection.

‘A high-risk strategy’

The association said this was “almost certainly” a significant underestimate, as it has assumed that all applied generals eligible for reapproval will successfully navigate the reapproval process. In practice, this is “extremely unlikely”.

Funding was made available in the 2021 spending review for “up to 100,000 T Level students” by 2024-25.

The SFCA said achieving this number in the next two years would involve near-exponential growth. That is “not consistent with enrolment patterns to date”.

Geoff Barton
Geoff Barton

Ministers believe that T-levels will “gain traction” when competing qualifications like BTECs have been removed.

But the SFCA warned scrapping BTECs to drive up T-level numbers is a “high risk strategy that is not supported by evidence”, adding “many” schools and colleges predict the reforms are more likely to drive up A-level numbers instead.

Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said the report “finally reveals the calamitous impact [the government’s reforms] will have”.

“The government should now pause and review its plans as a matter of extreme urgency. To fail to do so is to wilfully abandon the futures of a whole generation of sixth form students.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “This September there are 18 high quality T Levels available offered at more than 160 providers across the country. More courses will be coming on board over the next few years, so we expect student numbers to rise as these are rolled out.”

‘Desperate’ ministers misuse data

Ministers also stand accused of being “so desperate” to boost T-level enrolments that they routinely misuse a range of measures to understate the performance of applied general qualifications and overstate the performance of T-levels.

For example, qualifications like the BTEC foundation diploma in health and social care have been criticised by ministers because “less than 5 per cent” of students progress to higher education.

What officials ignore is that 64 per of students studying this qualification progress to employment and 24 per cent to further education, according to the SFCA.

The association said that by contrast, ministers routinely described T-levels as “gold standard” qualifications that offer “the best progression for students”.

Yet detailed performance data for T-levels will not be available until 2025 and progression data not until 2027 at the earliest. Data is currently limited to pass rates.

Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, said T-levels were “a welcome addition to the qualifications landscape, but there is simply no data to support the government’s claim that they are a gold standard improvement on BTECs”.

“Ministers must pause and review their plan, to avoid doing serious damage to young people, social mobility and the economy.”

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