Vocational qualifications don’t need more ‘rigour’

Despite the many flaws, teachers must act with integrity when delivering and assessing the constantly changing BTECs

The BTEC qualification causes many anxieties for many teachers. It is perpetually changing, not least because of the desire of consecutive education secretaries to “bring more rigour” to vocational education. There are some egregious faults as a result of recent changes, though, especially to those BTECs offered to entry and level 2 learners.

Vocational educational has long been dismally regarded by education decision-makers who, having only ever known academic success themselves, typically have little direct experience of it. Those policymakers, however, comprehend that not all 11 to 18-year-olds will prosper at GCSE and A-level and so need an outlet that is practical and bespoke to their skill-sets. They know that success in a growing economy is not solely down to those able to memorise information and exam technique.

BTEC qualifications emerged out of that belief. In addition, university technical colleges (UTCs) have been growing with Lords Baker and Dearing at the helm.

These UTCs, whose success is questionable, show that the academic route is not the only option for young people and are an alternative motivator for those finding academic revision difficult. There must be provision for those students aged 14 and up, who will not thrive in their former academic setting, and the government (whoever it may be) must stay true to their promise of providing it and more apprenticeships.

Decision-makers typically have little direct experience of vocational education

So then why have BTECs become tougher? Why under new rules are teachers no longer allowed to give their students feedback on their work when it is necessary for achievement? Why are exams being introduced in BTEC business? What are schools to do with the students who took a coursework approach precisely because it was more accessible?

This is not a sign of mediocrity, or of failure; all students, no matter their ability profile, must be able to be put on a path that leads to success for them. BTECs can
only evolve at the pace that is suited for the young person.

So what are we teachers to do while we wait for the often caustic decision-makers to decide what’s best for our children? The answer, with disdain, is follow their lead and follow the cardinal virtues of the Stoics.

Wisdom. While the rules may have changed on how we assess, what hasn’t changed is how we adapt. We must ensure that BTEC courses delivered in schools are creative, practical, contextual, accessible and relevant to the backgrounds and interests of our students.

Let us create assignments that challenge and excite our students’ learning. Let us emphasise the value in their qualification
for their future success and remind students that universities such as York accept distinctions in BTEC for their courses.

Courage. Though the road to the end of school may have become more challenging, journeys paved with overcome obstacles are the ones that produce better outcomes. At the beginning of our course, we must emphasise to students our expectations and show them what can be achieved if they apply themselves to their course.

Justice and temperance. The BTEC qualifications often don’t make sense to teachers. The struggle we see students face on our courses is often challenging, even without extra rigour, and may result in their leaving school. Despite this, we must ensure that we resist any temptation to act unethically. Though we may be pressured by targets, it is the students that will suffer if they are awarded a grade they did not achieve. It will put them on a path where they will face greater obstacles. In keeping with the theme of Greek value: “the most honourable, as well as the safest course, is to rely entirely upon valour” so that we do what is right for students.

Crucially – and this message is clear –despite the flaws, teachers must act with integrity when delivering and assessing BTECs. Though the paperwork may snow us under and make us lugubrious, we must act with brio for the sake of our students, whether exams are placed on us or not.

Oliver Beach is second-in-charge or economics and business at Central Foundaion Boys’ School in north London, a Teach First ambassador and cast member of TV show, Tough Young Teachers

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  1. Steve Albon

    There is a very successful academic and vocation set of parallel arrangements in for example, Germany, which shows that it can be done. I would go further. Let’s pinch the courses, translate them into English and pretend we thought of it