Former education ministers attack plan to reduce vocational qualifications

Coalition fears DfE may break pledges that only small percentage of qualifications will be replaced by T-levels

A coalition of former education ministers has attacked the government’s “disastrous” plan to scrap dozens of popular vocational qualifications in England and push students into taking its favoured new T-levels.

David Blunkett, the former Labour education secretary, said he feared that widespread scrapping of qualifications such as BTecs from 2025 could backfire and lead to more 17 and 18-year-olds opting to take A-levels rather than the vital vocational qualifications the country needs.

“At this moment in time, every high quality route to employment and filling the vast vacancies which exist should be encouraged rather than abolished, and clear commitments given in parliament should be honoured,” Lord Blunkett said.

A joint letter from the group to the education secretary, Gillian Keegan, accuses the Department for Education (DfE) of breaking earlier pledges that only a small percentage of the applied qualifications would have their funding cut off and replaced by T-levels.

The signatories alongside Blunkett and Ken Baker, who served as education secretary under Margaret Thatcher, include David Willetts and Jo Johnson, the former Conservative education ministers, and Sue Garden, the Liberal Democrat peer and deputy speaker of the House of Lords.

A copy of the letter, seen by the Guardian, states: “These qualifications are popular with students, respected by employers and valued by universities. Removing them will have a disastrous impact on social mobility, economic growth and our public services.

“For example, it is difficult to think of a worse time to scrap the extended diploma in health and social care. Given their importance to the healthcare workforce, it would be very damaging to the NHS to remove funding for these qualifications.”

BTecs are the most well-known applied general qualifications, with about 200,000 students each year taking BTec qualifications at level three, the equivalent to A-levels. The qualifications are nationally accepted for entry to apprenticeships and technical training, and for entry to university.

The government wants more students in England to take its T-level qualification, introduced in 2020 but so far only available in seven vocational areas, including education and childcare, construction and health and science. More subjects will be added later this year but colleges remain reluctant to teach them, because of lack of demand and extra expense as well as the substantial work placements they require.

Critics also say T-levels are too narrowly focused, with each T-level the equivalent of three A-level or BTec subjects, meaning students can take only a single course after they finish GCSEs.

The government had promised that the funding of BTecs and similar qualifications would be protected while T-levels were being rolled out. In April last year, both Nadhim Zahawi, the then education secretary, and Diana Barran, the education minister in the Lords, said during debates in parliament that only “a small proportion of applied general qualifications would be removed”.

But in January, a DfE guide included a list of subjects where ministers had made a “conscious choice” to axe funding, which researchers found would mean cutting 75 out of 134 relevant qualifications.

The letter urges Keegan to exempt all 134 qualifications from the cull, saying that they remain “a vital pathway to higher education and employment” for many young people.

Blunkett said: “A failure to listen to what business is saying and ensure there is real choice – which of course would include T-levels – is damaging to the economy, and a complete contradiction to the thrust of Jeremy Hunt’s speech last Friday.”

The Labour peer warned that reducing student choice to A-levels or T-levels could backfire. “I fear that government has still not understood that the route to T-levels is now being toughened to the point where applying for A-levels is actually easier,” he said.

Bill Watkin, the chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association – which is leading a campaign to protect student choice by retaining BTecs – said scrapping so many valued qualifications in the space of two years was “utterly unacceptable”.

“Unless the government reverses this decision, and starts to incorporate some evidence and transparency into its policymaking, tens of thousands of students will be left without a pathway to higher education or employment, and many employers will be left without the skilled workforce they need,” he said.

A DfE spokesperson said: “Our reforms will simplify the system for young people, with popular BTecs continuing to be available alongside A-levels and T levels. The BTecs that will no longer be available are only those with low take-up, poor outcomes, or which overlap with T-levels. We have also introduced a transition year to support students who may have taken BTecs, into T-level qualifications.

“We are committed to creating a world-class education system that provides a ladder up for all and gives young people the skills and knowledge to prepare them for higher education and the world of work.”

• This article was amended on 30 January 2023 to make clear the plan to reduce vocational qualifications is in England, not the UK as an earlier version suggested.


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

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