Monday 18 July 2022
[Sir Mark Hendrick in the Chair]
[Relevant document: e-petition 570179, Don’t scrap funding for BTEC Performing Arts]
Before we start, I want to say something about the exceptional heat. While the heat remains at this level, I am content for Members not to wear jackets or ties in Westminster Hall. Mr Speaker has announced similar arrangements for the main Chamber. When the House returns in the autumn, Mr Speaker and the Deputy Speakers will expect Members to revert to wearing jackets and will also strongly encourage male members to wear ties when speaking in the main Chamber and in Westminster Hall.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 592642, relating to BTEC qualifications.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Sir Mark. The petition, entitled “Protect student choice: do not withdraw funding for BTEC qualifications”, aims to reverse the plan to withdraw funding for most applied general qualifications, such as BTECs, and guarantee that they will continue to play a major role in the qualifications landscape.
The petition is about choice, and not forcing students to choose between studying only A-levels or T-Levels from the age of 16. I begin by acknowledging and congratulating the #ProtectStudentChoice coalition, an unprecedented gathering of 30 organisations from various sectors, including the Association of School and College Leaders, national teachers’ unions and the National Union of Students, for its brilliant campaigning against the defunding of BTECs.
The strong level of support—including the petition, which gathered over 108,329 signatures, leading to today’s debate—is credit to the brilliant work done by the coalition and, in particular, by the petition’s creators, Noni and James at the Sixth Form Colleges Association. The fact that the Government have had to make changes to their plans—although those changes still do not go far enough—shows the power of the work of the coalition and the value of the petition. I also want to say a special thanks to St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College and South Thames College in my Battersea constituency—two brilliant institutions providing BTECs for young people in Battersea and neighbouring constituencies.
Many of us are here because we are passionate about ensuring that the education system provides young people with the skills employers need. As we come out of the pandemic, we need students to finish education well equipped to progress to further training or to get skilled jobs, allowing businesses to recover and young people to flourish. That is why I am extremely concerned about the Government’s proposal to remove funding for the vast majority of BTECs. That will remove choice for many young people and may lead to some missing the opportunity to go to university.
It is pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a dear friend of mine, on securing the debate. BTECs have been a lifeline for so many of my constituents across St Helens and Knowsley. They have a positive impact on social mobility and have helped so many young people get on in life. Does my hon. Friend agree that BTECs offer the right balance of academic and vocational learning, and that funding for them must be maintained?
I congratulate my hon. Friend on making that point; she has clearly read my speech, because I am going to come on to that. She is absolutely spot on. That is why I was proud to join over 100 parliamentarians calling on the Government to reconsider their plan.
My hon. Friend is right: one thing that we want to promote, of course, is choice. I agree that scrapping BTECs will hinder social mobility, and hinder progress into skilled labour markets and higher education. As Paul Britton, the principal of Wyke Sixth Form College, pointed out—I am a bit biased as I went there myself as a student—scrapping BTECs will also have an impact on the local economy. Not only is it bad for social mobility, but it is bad for choice and for the local economy. I support BTECs so much that even my daughter is going to do one next year.
Fantastic—I could not say it better myself. My hon. Friend makes a fantastic contribution and she is absolutely right: it is not just about social mobility; it is about the local economy too.
The introduction of T-levels does have value in terms of technical education; however, there is no rationale for why BTEC qualifications must make way for them. It makes sense to have A-levels, T-levels and BTECs in all future qualification landscapes. It is clear that the Government are forcing through these changes so they can drive up T-level take-up. The Sixth Form Colleges Association has described T-levels as a
“minority, untested product that the Government is pushing as a mass product.”
It is still too early to analyse the effectiveness of T-levels. The Government should not be pulling away from BTECs without evidence about the success of T-levels. That is grossly unfair to young people, removing their choice and opportunity.
The notion that we can divide people into “academic” or “technical” is wrong. BTECs provide a different type of educational experience—one that combines the development of skills with academic learning. I believe that the Minister studied a BTEC and said that it had a transformative impact on her life. Perhaps she agrees with me that, after last week, we need a new BTEC course on public anger management.
Leaders from various education institutions have said that, for some students, BTECs will continue to be a more effective route to higher education or skilled employment than studying A-levels or T-levels.
I am fortunate to have Peter Symonds College in my constituency. It is one of the biggest in England and it educates about 4,500 young people. Many of its students progress to higher education or to skilled employment after studying an applied general qualification such as a BTEC. Does the hon. Lady agree that if the Government are to proceed with this policy and remove BTECs, we need to hear from the new Minister—I welcome her to her place—what viable pathway they envisage for those young people who will then want to move on to higher education or skilled employment through colleges such as Peter Symonds, which serves my constituents and those of many of the MPs around me in Hampshire?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution. It is important that we retain the three routes that are currently available.
In particular, BTECs provide a good route to get young people into university. The Nuffield Foundation found that around a quarter of students who go to university have BTEC qualifications. A significant number of those students complete their studies successfully, with 60% graduating with at least an upper second-class degree. The Government must listen to students. It is clear from the data that students value these qualifications. An estimate suggests that around 34% of the 921,046 16 to 18-year-olds studying a level 3 qualification in England are pursuing at least one BTEC.
On the benefits of BTECs, I will share some students’ experiences. First, BTECs allow students to specialise and learn a wider range of skills. Isabella, who is studying for a BTEC in IT at St Francis Xavier Sixth Form College, said:
“If I was to do A level computer science, I would have to pick two other subjects that weren’t related to my chosen career path…I would like to do something in artificial intelligence or computer science or web developing and I realised that me doing BTEC IT really benefits me as I study a lot of”
Secondly, BTECs are more accessible than alternatives such as T-levels. Summer, a level 3 aviation operations student at Newcastle College, said:
“Many people won’t meet the qualifications”
to go on to T-levels, and
“everyone deserves an education no matter what grades they get.”
Thirdly, BTECs also lead to beneficial health outcomes, including for mental health. Sylvia, who is studying art, design and communications at St Francis Xavier College, said:
“I don’t need to worry about exams or any tests, I’m just in the moment—I design buildings and I build them.”
Not everybody is cut out to do exams.
The reality is that the plan for T-levels and A-levels to become the qualifications of choice for most young people will leave many students—including those with special educational needs or disabilities and those from a black, Asian or ethnic minority background—without a viable pathway after their GCSEs. The Department for Education’s own impact assessment concluded that such students had the most to lose from these changes. Defunding BTECs risks reversing the progress made by higher education institutions, especially in London, on access and participation in recent years. BTECs are engines of social mobility, as my hon. Friends have highlighted. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students who enter university studied at least one BTEC, and that 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications.
The Government have now said that they plan to delay the defunding until 2024-25 rather than 2023-24, and that their plans will apply to only a “small proportion” of the total level 3 BTECs and other applied general-style qualifications. On the first point, delaying a bad idea does not stop it being a bad idea. On the second, removing a small proportion of qualifications for which a high proportion of students are enrolled will still have a devastating impact. For example, around 80% of applied general enrolments in the sixth form college sector are in just 20 subject areas.
It is time for the Government to listen, and they need to consider reversing their plans. Does the Minister think that the new Prime Minister will change the Conservative party’s disastrous policy on this issue? Will she guarantee that funding will not be removed for any BTEC qualifications unless an impartial, evidence-based assessment has concluded that they are not valued by students, universities and employers? Will she ensure that students and practitioners can contribute to the process of identifying qualifications that are deemed to overlap with T-levels? Can she assure us that some of the most popular BTECs—in subjects such as health, business, IT and applied sciences—will not be scrapped through the reapproval process simply to help drive up the numbers of students taking T-levels?
Before my hon. Friend comes to the end of her speech, may I say to her that it is not just in London that BTECs have proved so useful? It is also the case in the west midlands conurbation, which has a very diverse population and a sizeable skills gap. That is why the Government should look at offering BTECs alongside T-levels. T-levels have a huge role to play, and employer demand is there, but employers also recognise the upgrading of young people’s skills and abilities through undertaking BTECs. It is not just on the educational side, but on what the Government always say they are looking at—the outputs, which employers value as well.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely spot on.
In conclusion, the Government argue that changes are needed and that their plans are about streamlining and improving the quality of post-16 qualifications, but I and others firmly disagree with that assessment. We do not believe that the reforms will achieve their desired outcomes. The Government need to listen not just to me but to students, practitioners and employers, who all see the value of retaining BTEC qualifications.
It is a pleasure to be here now that I am back on the Back Benches, as one of the 56 who were driven to resign. This is the first debate that I have spoken in since then, which demonstrates how important I feel it is. There are a number of reasons for that.
BTEC qualifications are important nationally and for my constituency, which has several excellent further education colleges that I will mention. I am pleased to follow the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), who opened the debate. There were 669 signatories to the petition in my constituency—the eighth highest by number of constituents. Normally, when so many people sign a petition, it demonstrates that lots of others support the subject. That is why I am here.
To cut to the chase, I understand the need to equip students between 16 and 18, or indeed those studying in later life, with the best skills and tools to get into jobs and to work with the businesses that need them. That is really important for growing our economy. In that respect, I supported the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022.
I have real concerns, however, about the proposal to axe BTEC qualifications, which, in a large proportion of cases, function perfectly well. I completely understand that it would be worth looking at the multifarious range of courses, because clearly some are repetitive and some do not quite align with the jobs and skills we need, but a great many of them certainly do. I do not believe that they should just be removed so that people are left with only T-levels and A-levels. I perfectly understand their place as well, but it seems like throwing the baby out with the bathwater to get rid of something that is already performing well.
The hon. Member is making an excellent speech. I hope that the Minister will recognise that T-levels are not universally available throughout the country, because of the work placement requirement that comes with them. Getting rid of BTECs and replacing them with T-levels actually limits choice for people, because the availability of T-levels is variable and depends on the jobs in the local economy.
That is a really good point. It was not raised by people in my area—it may not be the case there—but the case certainly has been made that T-levels are basically the equivalent of three A-levels rolled together, and not every student is quite ready to do that. Students also have to get the same qualifications at GCSE to do a T-level, so already, one might be alienating a certain number of students who might find the BTEC really good and go on to do some of these other things. There are many things that I urge the Minister—I welcome her to her place—to look at and listen to, now that we have this reprieve.
The hon. Lady has hit on an important point. If the Government are saying that T-levels have greater rigour than BTECs, and if, by definition, T-levels will not be appropriate for many students who currently do BTECs, the Government have to tell us what their plan is for those students. If the plan is not a level 3 qualification, what is it?
I am not always the first person to agree with the Opposition, but I think we have a lot of synergy here. What is most important is putting students first and coming up with what we can do for them—and then, in fairness, what they can do to help the country and the economy because they are well trained and they have the right skills.
We have a reprieve, but I believe that it is only a delay at the moment. I urge the Minister to use that delay to listen to all these comments and work out what sort of system might keep all three qualifications in the right shape or form.
Further to my earlier intervention on the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), if the Government wish to proceed with this, they have the right to do so—if they can convince the House that it is the right thing to do. However, young people have had enough anxiety over the last few years, and they are making decisions now. They do not have time for delay and navel gazing. We need a steer sooner rather than later; otherwise, it just adds to their anxiety.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point. I think that we all recognise that our students have come through a very difficult time. Indeed, the colleges, in planning, also need some clear steers. His point is well made.
I want to speak very specifically about my own sixth-form college, Richard Huish College, which has been rated outstanding by Ofsted for the third consecutive year, and has an outstanding record over 20 years. Nearly 800 students every year do applied general qualifications—that is, BTECs—and a significant number go on to very high-quality education and a whole range of other courses. BTECs are definitely a useful stepping-stone. I have spoken to those students, and many of the points that I am about to raise have come from those discussions. I will highlight some of the examples. One student did two A-levels, psychology and sociology, and then a BTEC in music production. She has gone on to Magdalen College, Oxford, to do human sciences.
That is another well-made point. All those things must go into the mix in making sure that we get this right for our young people.
Another example is a student who studied the BTEC extended diploma in public services and went on to do paramedic science at the University of Plymouth. Another did the business BTEC and went on to do a higher-level apprenticeship with the accountants Ernst and Young. Another did the extended diploma in public services and went on to join Avon and Somerset police. Another did health and social care, and went on to an adult nursing degree at Cardiff University. A further student did a health and social care diploma and went on to a teaching course at the University of Plymouth—and so on and so forth. That demonstrates the breadth of the qualification.
There is also a strong link, particularly in my constituency, between students doing a health-related BTEC and then going into nursing, which is critical. We have another very good FE college, University Centre Somerset. In fairness, it does T-levels and BTECs, and that is all going well, but it takes a lot of students on to its nursing courses. We need those people in Somerset, and probably all over the country. We particularly need them in Somerset because we have a wonderful new hospital. As the MP, I was responsible for helping to get the upgrade and the new theatres, and we are working on that. There is a massive call for more nurses, and we want those nurses to stay in my lovely constituency. If we can train them there, and they can get a great, well-paid job, we will not haemorrhage them to elsewhere in the country. We need them to stay in Somerset, particularly because we have an ageing population. I would like my young people to stay in my wonderful constituency.
The hon. Lady is making an important point about the link-up and the circular needs in our local communities. For example, students can do a biomedical science BTEC at Luton Sixth Form College, they can go to the University of Bedfordshire in Luton and then they can work at Luton and Dunstable University Hospital. Would she agree that it is important that that practical link-up is maintained?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention. That is exactly the point that I was trying to make. We are demonstrating that that is what is happening in Somerset. I certainly want that to continue, and in fact to grow, and for us to nurture all those people to live and work in this wonderful environment. It is a beautiful environment in which to work anyway, so if we can give them a good job and good training, I am sure that they will be tempted to stay. That is particularly important. A significant number of people go into teaching from these courses, which is also important. There are a lot of concerns that moving from this binary system of T-levels and A-levels, and that it will mean our BTECs become defunded, so can the Minister assure me that that will not be the case? As I said, it will be much more appropriate for many young people to start with the BTEC.
On the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine), we want our students to have a viable pathway, and that point about the uncertainty was such a good one because they will already be thinking, “BTECs are the way for me”—having that confidence because it is not three A-levels rolled into one—but suddenly they are getting a bit uncertain about what we are doing for them.
The point that the hon. Member for Battersea and others made so ably about disadvantaged backgrounds is significant, because the data shows that a high proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds start with a BTEC and loads of them go on to university. The universities know that, and we are trying to level up and include everybody. That is something that needs to be taken into account.
I will make one further point, which is particularly relevant to Somerset. We have a high proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises in our county, and they simply cannot provide the 45 days of work experience required for a T-level. I understand why that is important and why T-levels are designed to include it, but these are not huge companies; they are small SMEs, and a lot of them find it difficult to give somebody even a week’s work experience. That needs a lot of attention, because otherwise even the T-levels will struggle in Somerset. What we do not want is to be left with a whole load of brilliant young students for whom A-levels are not appropriate and a T-level is not appropriate, and who are just not getting the opportunities that they need.
To conclude, my plea is to look at this really carefully and listen to what everybody is saying, because we are all saying it with the best intentions. We want to support the Government and their skills and opportunities agenda, because that is absolutely the right way to go. It is really good to be looking at all of this, but could we potentially have an evidence-based assessment of the whole situation so that we are doing the right thing for our young people?
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for leading the debate and speaking with characteristic eloquence about what the Government’s plans to defund applied general qualifications will mean for young people living in her constituency.
Like my hon. Friend, I have been deeply moved by the many messages I have received in recent weeks from students studying at Wirral Metropolitan College, urging me to speak in this debate and to stand up and defend the principle of student choice. Many of those young people live in some of the most deprived communities in the country, and they understand all too well what the Government do not: that guaranteeing young people access to a wide range of educational opportunities is essential if they are to realise their full potential. That message has been underscored by many of my older constituents who now work in sectors as diverse as academia, administration and aerospace, for whom BTECs were a vital stepping stone towards university or training in industry.
Much of today’s discussion will understandably focus on pathways to work or further study, but we must never forget that education is all about broadening one’s horizons in other senses. Although much of what a person studies at age 17 and 18 has little bearing on their day-to-day work, it nevertheless plays an important role in shaping more well-rounded, thoughtful and inquisitive adults. Since the Conservatives came into office 12 long years ago, education policy has been treated as a plaything for policymakers, who have little grounding in the sector and are more interested in ideology than in outcomes. Rhetoric has trumped hard-earned experience and successive Education Secretaries have been free to make far-reaching reforms, despite the protestations of education experts, practitioners and young people themselves.
The result is that today levels of social mobility are in freefall, while the UK continues to lag far behind our European neighbours when it comes to investment in technical training and education. Now Ministers want to do away with a system of qualifications that is widely respected, recognised and understood, replacing it with T-levels, which are entirely untried and untested.
For many people working in further education, these plans will undoubtedly revive memories of the ill-fated vocational diplomas and A-levels. However, whereas those served only to distract the Government from attending to the more profound questions concerning education provision, I fear that these new proposals will have the far graver consequence of entrenching long-standing educational inequalities for years to come. Indeed, the University and College Union has warned that by limiting student choice to a traditional academic education or a narrower vocational pathway, we risk giving rise to an overlooked middle of learners who are unable to access either.
For far too long, the Government’s approach towards education policy has been warped by a grotesque desire to preserve a privileged education for the elite few, and by the belief that university is somehow innately superior to a vocational education. The consequence is that vocational education is today poorly understood, even by Ministers who seek to reform it.
Ministers have fundamentally failed to grasp the fact that not everyone studying a vocational subject wishes to enter an occupational role, and nor should they be expected to commit to such a significant decision at such a young age. The education unions are quite right to fear that the Government’s plans for T-levels risk forcing some students, who would otherwise study BTECs, into lower levels of learning or out of education entirely.
Our country faces some extraordinary challenges in the coming years. The landscape of work is set to be fundamentally transformed by the growing pace of automation, while the existential threat posed by the climate crisis demands that we invest in an unprecedented level to lay the foundations for a high-skilled and green economy. These changes all have enormous implications for the future of education provision and, in particular, vocational education. We are in desperate need of a rethink of our priorities and a clean break with the idea that a vocational education is somehow second rate.
However, instead of showing the vision, ambition and commitment to fundamental change that the times call for, Ministers are instead focusing on repackaging technical qualifications and restricting student choice. In the short term, it is young working-class people in my constituency who will suffer, but soon enough our whole country will be forced to pay the price.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship for the first time, Sir Mark. I, too, thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) and the Petitions Committee for scheduling the debate. The petition has attracted many signatures from my Meon Valley constituency and elsewhere in Hampshire, where we are fortunate to have some really strong colleges serving our students. Although I do not have a sixth-form college in my constituency, some of my constituents attend colleges in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Steve Brine) and other nearby colleges. In the lead-up to the debate, I have been contacted directly by student constituents who have concerns, and I am pleased to speak on their behalf too.
In the post-covid landscape, we must help students to catch up, as well as ensuring that education meets the changing needs of employers and the future life of young people. One thing that I know employers look for is certainty. There has been an endless debate about the value of qualifications and about how well qualifications relate to what employers need, which is why I wrote a paper on assessment nearly two years ago and why there have been five commissions since on the subject, which I will come to later. Indeed, tomorrow we will be setting up an all-party parliamentary group on assessment—I say that in case anybody here is interested in joining.
With BTEC, we have a proven qualification in many subjects that provides value for everyone—students and employers. Qualifications such as BTEC are taken close to the point at which many students are likely to enter work. They are relatively more important than A-levels to young people who are not going to university, as they prepare students well for work immediately, whereas university students have another three or four years before facing career-level employers for the first time after graduating.
I am pleased that most universities recognise BTECs as part of the mix of qualifications for entry to university. I did not know about T-levels, but I have looked them up and the hon. Member for Battersea is absolutely right that Cambridge and Oxford do not accept them at this stage, but I hope that might change.
I welcome the intentions towards employability skills that the Government showed in bringing in T-levels. However, where BTEC qualifications best fit the needs of students and employers, they should be retained. Let us take nursing and healthcare, for instance. All the medical bodies have said that they are concerned about the impact of scrapping BTEC courses on their ability to recruit in future. Students who take BTECs can become support workers, and many go on to qualify as nurses, midwives and radiographers. NHS employers estimate that about one fifth of those studying for a nursing degree started with a health and social care BTEC. At the same time, NHS bodies have doubts about the viability of replacement T-levels because, as we have heard, they require a 45-day work placement, which many employers struggle to offer. That is a problem for people who want to go into medicine too; finding work experience is very difficult. Ending BTECs without having a suitable replacement will make it hard to recruit into those professions and others, including apprenticeships, so we must ensure that every route into those jobs is kept open.
We should also look at the social impact of the proposed changes. The equalities impact assessment, which formed part of the Government’s response to the consultation, states that removing BTECs will mean that some students do not attain a qualification at level 3. There is simply a commitment to mitigate that with a higher-quality level 2, and mitigations are outlined to support continued progression to level 3, but it is not clear what they will be. The EIA highlights concerns about the uncertainty of the future approval criteria.
Hon. Members will agree that to expect students to start on a path when neither they nor the Government know where it will lead is unacceptable, as my hon. Friend the Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) articulated well. The EIA is clear that students from minority and more deprived backgrounds will be disproportionately affected by this change. It is not good enough to say that we will make a better level 2 for them. That is not how we advance social mobility.
This experience should teach us that the structure of senior education assessment is becoming more confused, not less. We have A-levels for the academic strand, which is completely separate from vocational strands. T-levels do not provide learning in some subjects in the way that BTECs do. We are proposing to end BTECs in general while retaining some specialist qualification. As I mentioned in the paper that I wrote, it is time to look again at how we structure education between the ages of 14 and 18 so that young people can work towards a range of qualifications that complement each other—education and vocational, with the ability to do different strand at the same time.
We should end the situation in which young people take GCSEs, which are only a milestone in their education, before moving into a confused offer of A-levels, T-levels and whatever other limited qualifications remain after this review. We need a vocational path alongside T-levels. All the commissions that have published on this subject agree that our assessment system is no longer fit for purpose.
University technical colleges are one of the best innovations in education in decades. Many of my constituents go to one in Portsmouth, and I would love to have more surrounding my constituency, because the demand for UTC places in Hampshire outstrips supply. That is the right kind of environment for young people to take in a mixture of subjects and qualifications. By starting at 14, they avoid a jolt in students’ education at 16. Students do GCSEs, but it is a secondary thing; it is something they have to get through, rather than linking to what they want to do.
As usual, my hon. Friend is making a very thoughtful speech. In Hampshire, we have a tertiary system: we have big sixth-form colleges and very few sixth forms attached to state secondary schools. UTCs are an important element of choice that maintains the system that has worked well and served our county and constituents for many years.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. That should not stop a curriculum that starts at 14 and continues to 18. It just means that it continues in a different building, perhaps with a different uniform. It is a way of progressing, and it is very easy to do. It should not be a barrier to changing to a different sort of curriculum. It also means that people would have a much more coherent education. They would then be able to go into the workplace, further training or higher education, properly equipped with a wide range of experience. It is a bit like an English baccalaureate, although I do not think we should call it a baccalaureate—I have spoken about that many times and will not speak about it now.
Employers, teachers and students in my constituency all tell me that we should have a meaningful reform of senior education, and I agree. The present situation with BTEC, as this petition emphasises, is one that we must avoid letting happen again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on leading the debate with an excellent speech, and the #ProtectStudentChoice coalition on their excellent campaigning on the issue. I am a proud former student, and now governor, of Luton Sixth Form College—the UK’s first sixth-form college—which now educates over 3,000 students. I am also pleased to be co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on sixth form education, so I would like to extend my thanks to the Sixth Form Colleges Association in particular for all their hard work in the area.
Every student deserves a first-class education, and I know that giving students choice to shape their learning, assessment and career path is critical to their successfully achieving their future aspirations. However, the Government’s proposals seem to fly in the face of that. #ProtectStudentChoice estimates that at least 34% of the 16 to 18-year-olds studying a level 3 qualification in England are pursuing at least one applied general qualification—that is more than 300,000 students. Many young people would be better served studying an applied general qualification, such as a BTEC, rather than an A-level or T-level-only study programme. It should not be one route over another. The three-route model would work well. That is why the over 108,000 people who signed the petition and I are steadfast in our opposition to the Government’s plan to defund BTECs.
Working class people in my town should not be held back by that short-sighted narrowing of opportunities. BTECs have transformed the life chances of thousands of young people in Luton and made a significant contribution to our local economy—there are numerous examples of young people in Luton pursuing their aspirations through BTECs, whether that be work, further qualifications or university—and that is backed up by research. I have made the point many times before that disadvantaged young people are among those with the most to lose from the Government’s plans. That is evidenced by the Department for Education’s own equality impact assessment, which states
“those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males”
“disproportionately likely to be affected.”
BTECs are a route to university for many of those young people. The Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students that enter university studied at least one BTEC, and that 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications. The Nuffield Foundation found that a quarter of students now enter university with BTEC qualifications, and are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. The vast majority of BTEC students complete their studies successfully, with 60% graduating with at least a 2:1.
I was contacted by a constituent ahead of the debate to share their experiences studying BTECs. They said that:
“Dyslexia greatly affects my short-term memory, making exam-based qualifications which rely on memory recall, such as A-levels, almost completely out of reach for myself and others with dyslexia.”
“pursued a BTEC in mechanical engineering, which allowed for me to be assessed on coursework and practical applications across the span of two years. If it was not for my BTEC qualification and the support I received throughout that process, I would not be able to pursue a BEng at university today.”
They summed the point up better than I could, saying that:
“BTECs are a vital lifeline to all neurodivergent and underprivileged children in the UK, for whom A-levels may not be a viable option. Students with dyslexia, ADHD and ASD face larger barriers to mainstream forms of education than most, and by cutting funding for BTECs, it will ultimately deter these students from achieving their potential and integrating them into industry workforces.”
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point. This Government have had an obsession with exams over the course of the last 12 years, as though they are the only way of demonstrating what a student knows. Does the fact that so many students get a second chance through BTECs, and go on to be successful at university and get degrees, not prove that the focus on exams, and on dismissing the achievements of those students who have qualifications largely based on coursework, is entirely wrongheaded?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I will go on to talk about choices and how people can progress and make different choices about their careers and future, and what they want to do, but that is exactly it. Narrowing those options will make things much more difficult.
I would be interested to hear from the Minister what assessment has been made of how to support neurodivergent students who will be impacted by the proposals to defund BTECs. Altaf Hussain, principal of Luton Sixth Form College, based in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton North (Sarah Owen), has made this point to me:
“By allowing that flexibility for A Levels and forcing the T Level route for students with lower prior attainment the government is creating a divided society that is penalising the most vulnerable in our society. The point is that many young people do not want to, or even should not have to, decide their future path at 16. Interests, aspirations and capabilities all change”.
To re-emphasise the point, it is not about favouring one route over others, but empowering young people to shape their own learning. T-levels could be a welcome development, but they should sit alongside BTECs, rather than replace them.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right about the need to keep options open for young people. Deciding our whole future at the age of 16 would have been unrealistic for most of us, and it flies in the face of what most educational systems around western Europe are doing. Does my hon. Friend also agree that employers want young people with a rounded range of skills and qualifications—vocational, academic and practical—and that the obsession with people going down an academic or a vocational route is completely at odds with what happens in most workplaces?
I thank my hon. Friend for her—as ever—very thoughtful contribution, and I thoroughly agree with her. As Ministers know, T-levels will not fill the gap, because this is not just about the qualification and the specific workplace at the end of the process, but about tailoring learning and types of assessment to suit people’s development.
I understand that the Government’s justification for defunding some BTEC qualifications is that they overlap with one of the new T-level qualifications, or that they have not been reapproved as they do not meet new quality and necessity criteria. The #ProtectStudentChoice campaign has raised concerns about the overlap process: it is not transparent, and some unusual decisions have been made regarding qualifications. For example, one awarding organisation’s diploma in health and social care featured on the list, but diplomas from other awarding organisations did not. Engineering BTECs were included, despite most engineering T-levels featuring in waves 3 and 4. Some clarity on that point would be very welcome.
Fundamentally, there is no student, provider or employer input into the overlap process. The reapproval process is expected to make its first announcement in September, so I urge the Minister to ensure the same failures are not replicated. As all BTEC qualifications must go through that process, it must be transparent, and decision making must not be the sole preserve of Whitehall and external consultants. As a bare minimum, the public—especially hard-working students—expect the Government to be open and clear about their plans. Not doing so severely damages trust in the Government to do the right thing and the credibility of the policy, so the Government must go further than simply delaying the defunding of BTECs by 12 months and making vague commitments to remove only a small proportion of them. They should rethink their plan and guarantee that funding will not be removed unless an impartial, evidence-based assessment has concluded that a qualification is not valued by students, universities or employers. Reckless policymaking that could be disastrous for social mobility and the economy must not take place without hard supporting evidence.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Sir Mark. I congratulate the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on opening this excellent debate.
Here we have another broken promise from the Conservative Government. For months, we Liberal Democrats have warned that the Government were planning to scrap BTECs, and our concerns were heightened during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022. We were given assurance after assurance, but here we are. It is interesting to see that as soon as some Conservative Members are free of the shackles of Government, they stand up and support BTECs—I wish there were more.
Obviously I am speaking up for BTECs, but I also think the Government are going in absolutely the right direction in terms of skills and opportunities, recognising that they need to be aligned with business needs. I am sure the hon. Lady would agree with that.
I absolutely agree, but the Government are going to scrap BTECs, and the hon. Lady is opposing that. That is the only point I was making.
In July, the Department for Education introduced a twin-track system, for A-levels and T-levels, for young people at the age of 16, and the result is that funding for most BTEC qualifications will go. One hundred MPs and peers—including me—wrote to the Department for Education in support of the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, a coalition of 21 organisations that represent students and staff in schools, colleges and universities, whose aim is to save BTECs. I thank the more than 100,000 petitioners, many of them from Bath College and Bath Spa University. We will continue to resist the move to defund BTECs.
It is the creative subjects in particular that will suffer. The Government intend to scrap those BTECs that they deem to overlap with A-levels and T-levels, but the process of assessing what is an overlap is not at all transparent. Who were the six assessors commissioned by the DFE to review the 2,000 or so qualifications? What were their backgrounds and experience? Where is the written evidence of their conclusions in order to defund 160 qualifications? Ofqual has quality-assured the qualifications for many years, and Ofsted, which oversees the quality of education, has at no point suggested that the qualifications lead to poor outcomes, so why will they go?
BTECs are invaluable in order to provide very different types of educational experiences. We have already heard a lot about that. They are popular with students and respected by employers and they provide a well-established route to higher education. They work, so what other than a narrow-minded ideological view has led the Government to scrap most of them and create less choice, especially for those learners who come from disadvantaged backgrounds? We Liberal Democrats acknowledge that from time to time, the range of qualifications needs to be reviewed, but not by closing viable educational pathways, especially for those students from poorer or minority backgrounds. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students entered university with at least one BTEC, and so did 37% of black students.
Removing BTECs as an option risks students failing courses or picking courses that they are not engaged with. Students today need more, not less, support. They need more, not less, choice. They need choices and a Government who understand that by providing diverse pathways to qualifications, we will all end up with a much better, wider and diverse workforce. I hope the Government will think again.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark. I start by congratulating the 13,437 people who signed the petition entitled “Don’t scrap funding for BTEC Performing Arts”—I will come back to that in my speech. I also congratulate and place on the record my thanks to the more than 108,000 people who signed the #ProtectStudentChoice petition. Like other hon. Members in the debate, I want to refer on the record to the excellent work that my local college, Lewisham College, does in developing our young people and others so that they can go on and be successful in BTECs and continue their education further.
The securing of a Westminster Hall debate clearly shows the strength of feeling about the plans to defund BTECs. I am really glad to see people from all different political parties contributing to the debate and showing the strength of feeling on this issue. I am sure that they are all aware that young people in England can currently choose between three types of level 3 qualifications at the age of 16: academic qualifications such as A-levels; technical qualifications that lead to a specific occupation; and applied general qualifications, such as BTECs, which combine the development of practical skills with academic learning.
That all changed in July 2021 when the Department for Education confirmed plans to replace the three-route model with a two-route model, of A-levels and T-levels. As a result, funding for the majority of BTEC qualifications will be removed. It is disappointing that the Government reached that decision after the Wolf review said that BTECs are
“valuable in the labour market, and a familiar and acknowledged route into higher education”.
Although the Government insist that it is not a cut, it is.
My hon. Friend refers to the Government’s decision a year ago in July 2021, but that is also four Education Secretaries ago. Does she agree that we have Education Secretaries who pop into the job for a few months without any prior knowledge of the work, make massive decisions and disappear to do a different job, leaving those lifelong educationalists to pick up the pieces from the appalling work that they have done?
My hon. Friend makes a powerful and important point. These are people’s lives, future and opportunities to get on in life. Quite often, they are lifelines. I speak from experience. After failing my GCSEs, as a working-class 16-year-old with a difficult background, it was a BTEC in performing arts—I am doing a bit of performing now—that got me back into education and, ultimately, to university. It made me excited about education again. A BTEC was my second chance.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ambition for a lifelong loan entitlement, so that adults can return to learning and achieve level 4 and beyond qualifications, will be compromised if it does not give people the widest possible range of opportunities to get the level 3 qualifications that will enable them to take advantage of that subsequent opportunity?
My hon. Friend makes a good and important point about everybody having access to the education at the points and times in life that they need it. This Government’s decision to hastily remove BTEC funding quite simply makes a mockery of their claims to be levelling up in education. That is made worse on examining impact assessments of the decision, which highlight that 27% of BTEC students are deemed the most disadvantaged.
I am wholeheartedly opposed to the changes. Scrapping BTEC funding is simply the wrong call for several reasons, but one of the main reasons has to do with my life story of a young kid who many thought was never going to go on to achieve anything. I went to Accrington and Rossendale College and studied my BTEC in performing arts. That led me to believe that I could go on to university. That led me to believe that I could stand here one day as an MP. They offer life-changing opportunities for people.
It is fascinating to hear the hon. Lady’s story. Given her experience, does she agree that it is important that we provide education that engages young people who otherwise find academic subjects very difficult to engage with at first? They need to be moved towards an educational route that engages and enthuses them.
I absolutely agree. Studying performing arts taught me that I loved history and geography and taught me about team working. There are so many other skills that are important in life.
BTECs are engines of social mobility. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students who enter university studied at least one BTEC, and 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications. It has already been said that research from the Nuffield Foundation found that a quarter of students now enter university with BTEC qualifications, and are likelier to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. The vast majority of BTEC students complete their studies successfully, with 60% graduating with at least a 2:1. I must confess I only got a 2:2. My question is simple: why do Ministers want to take this second chance away from young people and others up and down the country, when it is evidence based?
To end, I state once again how strongly I oppose the defunding of BTECs. We all know that the scrapping of BTECs will be disastrous for social mobility and for the economy. The Government should rethink their plans to scrap those valuable qualifications and guarantee that funding will not be removed from any BTEC unless an impartial, evidence-based assessment has concluded that students, universities or employers do not value it; we know that at the moment they do.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark.
I, too, thank my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova), for leading this hugely important debate. I also thank all the 108,000 people who signed the petition and the #ProtectStudentChoice coalition for their unprecedented campaign, bringing together teachers, learners, parents and businesses from across the country to ask the Government to think again on the issue.
I welcome the new Minister to her place. She has on a plate the chance to change the opportunities of thousands of young people across the country by looking again at this policy. I hope that she is listening carefully and will take this action as her homework over the summer, but urgently, because once defunded, the BTECs will be hard to put back into place. It would be much better to stop, rethink and not defund the BTECs.
I am conscious that our education system in Northern Ireland is different from the one here, so the debate is slightly different for us. Every time there is a major educational change, one to two years’ worth of children always pay the price for those changes to teaching and marking. Children cannot afford to be the losers, so does the hon. Lady share my concerns that the Minister and the Government must be cognisant of making any changes or deciding to go in a different direction?
The hon. Member makes a good point: the changes will be detrimental. That is what teachers are telling us all—the MPs present today and many others. They have said that through the petition and they have told us. That is why I am in this Chamber—because the heads of my local institutions have told me of the detrimental damage if the change goes ahead.
I speak on behalf of colleges and sixth forms in Wandsworth, which are deeply concerned about the impact, especially on disadvantaged young people. The outcome will be perverse, the exact opposite of what the introduction of T-levels is supposed to do. No one present objects to T-levels; we object to taking away the three-track system.
One college, South Thames College, has already been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. The South Thames Colleges Group has 21,000 students across south London. I have talked to those at the group, and they have a large number of students who are taking business BTEC, but would not move to the T-level because, first, they cannot work part-time—a T-level is full-time. Many people have to work part-time to make ends meet for their family, and they will not be able to do so. Their families will say, “Sorry, you cannot carry on in education. We need you to work,” so they will have to drop being able to go to South Thames. I met several of those students, who say, “I have been able to come here to do a business BTEC and my siblings want to come, but my family says they probably won’t be able to if moving to a T-level, which is full-time.”
Secondly, the college will find it hard to find enough business placements in our area. As has been mentioned by other Members, there is a high number of SMEs—small businesses—in Wandsworth that will not be able to take on the business placements, especially as so many are struggling at the moment. Just this morning I met the head of the Wandsworth chamber of commerce, who said it will be very hard for businesses to be able to support T-levels. They really want to see more students doing business BTECs and other business qualifications, but the Government’s change will have the opposite effect and will be damaging to our local economy.
The third reason why students will find it difficult to stay in education is that there are barriers to higher-level entry for T-levels. T-levels are supposed to replace BTECs as the step into post-16 education, but BTECs do something that T-levels do not. Finally, those who have to stay on and do their GCSE maths, English and catch-up will have to spend a year doing that and then start the T-level, which puts them a year behind their peers. Their peers will be going ahead with their qualifications, and they will feel that they are behind. It will not be attractive to take up a T-level, having had to spend a whole year catching up with GCSEs. If they could do the BTEC alongside catching up with GCSEs, it would be far more attractive and would keep young people in education.
South Thames College notes that the Department for Education’s impact assessment for its consultation acknowledges that students from more disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to be taking the qualifications that the Department is planning to remove, and that it will need mitigation action to avoid causing them detriment. St Cecilia’s Church of England School in Southfields shares exactly the same concerns as those of South Thames College. It offers BTECs in business, travel and tourism, music tech and applied science. I have introduced South Thames College teachers to previous Ministers so that they could talk about their concerns, and I invite the Minister to meet those teachers in order to talk to the people who know what effect the change will have.
At St Cecilia’s, BTEC business attracts more pupils than other subject—about 25 a year. It is a popular subject at GCSE, and many then want to progress from the level 2 course to the level 3 course. It is the most valued and popular BTEC, accounting for about 25% of the school’s BTEC students, who cannot just switch from BTEC business to T-level business. The cuts would mean that a significant number of pupils in year 11 would not be able to progress to the sixth form. Worryingly, I am hearing that schools are saying they will not be able to offer anything except A-levels if we move to the proposed system. That is not what Ministers want to be the outcome of introducing T-levels, but it will be if there is no stop, reset and rethink.
Most sixth forms the size of St Cecilia’s will struggle to offer T-levels. They lack the space, the resource and the ability to merge the qualifications into a timetable in which other BTECs and A-levels are offered. St Cecilia’s says that it will not have the staff capacity to organise all the business placements that are needed, which would be another barrier. The school would be competing with other sixth forms and colleges in an already packed market in Wandsworth. If that is true in south London, how much more will it be true around the country? How much more will rural areas be affected? I just do not see how the needs of the new business T-level can be met. The head of St Cecilia’s says:
“Many pupils in Year 11 at St Cecilia’s opt to take a blended courses of BTEC alongside A levels, and so not being able to offer Business would reduce the rich diversity in our current Sixth Form too.”
If schools cannot offer T-levels for those reasons, they may switch to A-level business, but that would be a barrier to entry for pupils who prefer or need to study in a different way, for many reasons. St Cecilia’s leadership believes that defunding BTECs would go against the Government’s clear principle of placing curriculum development at the heart of school improvement. It is not trusting our student leaders, heads of education and teachers to make the best decisions, and it goes back to pupil choice as well. School leaders should be given the freedom to decide which courses are best suited to their cohorts, because they know them very well. That means a choice between BTECs, T-levels, A-levels and apprenticeships.
I would like to know what the Department is doing to address the concerns of institutions such as South Thames College and St Cecilia’s. Will the Minister come and meet them? I particularly want to know what mitigations are being proposed to help disadvantaged young people who will affected by the change. Has there been an evidence-based assessment? The Minister should look at the evidence base for making this huge decision. Will she commit to permitting a wider range of part-time work options to count as an industry placement? Will she relax restrictions on the number of placements that can make up the industry placement total?
Those are all important questions, but the most important question is whether she or her replacement will look again at this ill-thought-out and reckless policy. I implore her to rethink and not to defund BTECs. Colleges, sixth forms and students oppose it, and the losers will be the most disadvantaged.
In one fell swoop, this change will disproportionately cut educational opportunities for black and Asian students, for students from financially disadvantaged backgrounds, for students with learning disabilities, and for students with mental health challenges. It is not too late to look again at the policy and stop it. By doing that, the Minister will improve the educational opportunities of young people across the country.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Sir Mark, particularly as you are a fellow north-west MP. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) on bringing an important issue to the Chamber. I hope that the Minister will give us a reasonable response.
I place on record my gratitude to all teaching staff and support staff in my constituency and across the country and the world. The last two and a half years have been challenging for all of us, but teaching staff, support staff and people who work in the catering teams—everyone—have gone above and beyond. All hon. Members present will agree that we are very grateful to them for their significant contribution.
I have received correspondence from Aquinas College and Stockport College in my constituency. My constituency was one of the top 10 constituencies where the petition was signed, because some 639 constituents signed it. Nationally, 108,349 people signed it, which is a serious number. I often attend debates in Westminster Hall with just two or three hon. Members, but there are several MPs here from pretty much all the political parties, which reflects the subject’s importance.
Aquinas College in my constituency educates more than 2,200 young people every year, and its principal Danny Pearson has written to me on the matter. Stockport College is part of the Trafford College Group and educates more than 5,500 young people across several boroughs. My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who is a good friend and who made an intervention earlier, and I work closely with the Trafford College Group to ensure that those young people, and some older people such as me, have the opportunities that they need, that our economy needs and that Greater Manchester needs.
James Scott, the principal of Trafford College Group, wrote to me. I found his contribution quite serious and that is one reason I am here. Mr Pearson and Mr Scott both expressed serious concerns about the Government’s plans to remove funding for these qualifications. Lots of constituents have also contacted me in the last few days regarding this debate, so it is a serious issue.
The Government talk a lot about levelling up, but actions speak louder than words. We need to invest in our young people and our education system to make sure that people are given the opportunity for education, further education and skilled employment. We do not want a race to the bottom and zero-hours contracts; we want skilled, well-paid jobs that people can rely on so that they can have dignity and survive in this brutal cost of living crisis.
I will not repeat at length the comments of several hon. Members, but BTECs have made a significant contribution to the local economy and social mobility in the UK. Defunding them will leave many young people without a viable pathway, which will in turn have an impact on their progress to skilled employment or higher education.
Several hon. Members have made the point about the disproportionate impact that the cuts will have on disadvantaged young people. That point is covered in the Department for Education’s equality impact assessment, which the Government should not ignore—although I am not hopeful that the Government would not ignore their own equality impact assessment. I would welcome some comments from the Minister on that point.
I am a proud Labour MP and trade unionist. The National Education Union, the University and College Union, Unison and NASWUT all support the campaign, and as I and several hon. Members have said, almost 110,000 people signed the petition, so it is a serious campaign. I could repeat the points that have already been made by colleagues, but although the debate can last up to three hours—you look concerned, Sir Mark, but do not worry—I will not.
Social mobility is important, and we need investment. The cuts have not been properly thought out and will have a serious impact on Greater Manchester and the north-west. I hope that the Minister will take our comments on board and that her response will be useful to our constituents. Thank you for calling me to speak, Sir Mark.
Thank you, Sir Mark; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. Please forgive me for mishearing you earlier, and I apologise to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), who made an excellent speech—probably far better than what I am about to say. I thank the Petitions Committee for proposing this debate, and the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for opening it so ably.
Vocational and technical qualifications and training have for too long been incorrectly treated as inferior to academic qualifications. Right across our society—I include myself in this and hope that my own mindset is shifting now—we share an ingrained cultural bias in favour of academic achievement. Vocational skills, however, are more important than ever, as our country faces immense skills shortages across so many different sectors.
Although the Government’s new-found focus on vocational and technical training is welcome, the Liberal Democrats are opposed to the defunding—that essentially means scrapping—of the majority of BTECs. As many hon. Members have said, that will hurt the most disadvantaged students, and it narrows choice instead of widening opportunities for all. In so doing, we are kickstarting a damaging defunding process from 2024, before the T-level concept has even been properly proven and the new qualifications bedded in.
BTECs are immensely popular: more than a quarter of a million students take BTEC qualifications in any given year. They are disproportionately taken up by students from poorer backgrounds, ethnic minorities, and those with special educational needs and disabilities, as the DFE’s own impact assessment has confirmed. The hon. Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) and my hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse) have already cited the large percentage of white working-class and black students who, having taken BTECs, make it to university and achieve a 2:1, so perhaps I can instead quote Lord Baker, a former Conservative Education Secretary. During the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, he described the plan to defund BTECs as “absolutely disgusting” because it would deny
“black, Asian, ethnic minority, disadvantaged and disabled students…hope and aspiration.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 October 2021; Vol. 814, c. 1789.]
The hon. Member for Battersea started her argument on the issue of choice—that is the crux of the matter, and there is cross-party agreement on it. Although there is always value in rationalising qualifications from time to time, forcing students to choose between A-levels and T-levels will narrow their choices at a time when we need them to have a range of ways to gain the transferable skills they need for their future careers. Some BTECs will remain—those that are equivalent to a single A-level, or a small number equivalent to two A-levels—but the majority will disappear.
I want to give an example from Esher Sixth Form College, which is not in my constituency but serves a number of my constituents. Students can study BTECs in subjects such as applied science, business or digital film and video production, in combination with complementary A-levels in subjects such as chemistry, computer science or graphic communication. However, BTECs also allow students to choose an unrelated A-level, enabling them to follow a passion.
The speech by the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) was brilliant, inspiring and powerful because it was based on her personal story, and she talked about the passion that brought her back to education. A lot of students choose to mix and match, so that they can round out their expertise and experiences in foreign languages, maths or politics, which are subjects that benefit the economy and our young people. At a time when employers are crying out for our young people to enter the workforce with far broader skills and experience, surely we should be broadening the choice and allowing that mix-and-match approach rather than the Government trying to force everyone into those two straitjackets.
Scrapping BTECs will leave many students without a viable pathway at the age of 16. For some students who begin A-levels but do not enjoy them and struggle to cope, BTECs offer a vocational lifeline to supplement their academic qualifications. One constituent of mine, Lucas, started out studying three A-levels but switched to a BTEC in music in his first year in the sixth form. He went from contemplating leaving without any qualifications to achieving the highest grade in the county in his BTEC. He is now working as a teaching assistant supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities, and he is concerned about what scrapping BTECs and removing choice will mean for his pupils in the future.
In response to the petition, which is signed by 331 of my constituents from Twickenham, the Government argued that reform is necessary. As I have already said, I and my party fully agree that we must do much more to achieve parity between vocational and academic qualifications, but scrapping BTECs is not the answer. They have recently undergone a rigorous process of reform, they are popular with students, respected by employers and provide a well-established route to higher education or employment. The Government’s answer in terms of T-levels is welcome. Technical qualifications giving 16 to 19-year-olds a mixture of classroom and on-the-job experience, including a work placement, are really welcome but, as a number of hon. Members have touched on, there are problems, which I want to go into in more detail.
The Association of Colleges is concerned that the transition is being rushed, and I wholeheartedly agree with that. If there is to be this transition, it should take place over 10 years, ensuring that no qualifications are defunded without a full alternative being in place. On that point, I was talking to the principal of Richmond upon Thames College, in my constituency, just this morning. About one in 10 of his current students is studying a course that is due to be defunded and because the college is only part way towards introducing T-levels, for a number of reasons, there is no alternative. Future students would have no alternative if those courses were defunded from 2024 onwards.
It is premature to start to defund BTECs before T-levels are fully bedded in and understood. Indeed, during the passage of the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, another Conservative former Education Minister, Lord Willetts, said that T-levels
“should succeed on their merits, not because viable alternatives are removed by government”.—[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 October 2021; Vol. 814, c. 1793.]
That chimes with a lot of what we have heard today, and that point was made by a Conservative former Education Minister.
Ministers claim that students are confused by the current range of qualifications, but there is little evidence to support that. There are 39 subjects available across the entire sixth form college sector, with only nine available at Esher Sixth Form College, which I mentioned earlier. Ministers may be confused by that choice, but students certainly are not. Every year, about a third of Esher’s cohort studies at least one BTEC. The flexibility for students to be able to pull together their own study programme is essential as they try to work out what the right choices are for them for the future.
The T-levels that are being introduced are 25% practical and 75% academic, which, as some people have already alluded to, puts them out of reach of many students who might achieve lower grades in their GCSEs. They are often the people who really flourish on the BTEC pathway. The Association of Colleges has warned that T-levels will exclude the most disadvantaged students, particularly those who do not obtain a level 4 in maths and English GCSE. T-levels are rigorous and large qualifications, so, although the Government do not require maths and English for T-level entry, many colleges require it.
As hon. Members have alluded to, there is a real challenge with the industry placement that comes with T-levels. Trying to achieve 45 days is incredibly difficult. The Policy Exchange, a Conservative think-tank, says that only 8% of employers are currently offering a placement for the duration required for T-levels, and it is harder to find placements in some sectors than others. For instance, the digital industries often have teams working remotely, and we know that there is also a challenge between rural and suburban and urban areas.
The principal of Richmond upon Thames College told me this morning how difficult it is for him to get employers to engage with and provide work placements for vocational qualifications. That is in Greater London, in Twickenham, where there is a plethora of employers on the doorstep. Sadly, he is leaving Richmond upon Thames College later this year to go and head up Petroc, a college in Devon—I happened to visit Petroc with the new Member, my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Richard Foord), during the by-election. One of the challenges facing the principal of Richmond upon Thames College as he goes to Petroc is that in a rural area—the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) already made this point—it is even harder to find employers to engage with T-levels, so he has his work cut out, but I wish him all the best.
We really need to see where those completing T-level courses go next. The Association of School and College Leaders has stated:
“We are…watching the number of T level students who end up in university with real interest. If T level students are going to end up in university in large numbers, and not in further technical training, then it brings into question why BTECs are being defunded. After all,”
“the government’s main argument for scrapping BTECs in order to introduce T levels…The government can’t have it both ways.”
I completely agree with that point.
My final point is on defunding and process. There has been a real lack of transparency about which BTECs are being chosen first to be defunded. When questions have been asked about improving transparency, very little has been forthcoming. I see that as part of a wider trend. We were talking about BTECs today, but in terms of wider applied general qualifications, RSL Awards is based in my constituency, an awarding body for contemporary music and arts qualifications—it does the Rockschool qualification grading. Some of its qualifications got delisted for reasons it fails to understand. It tried to appeal, but has been unsuccessful—it has been told “case closed”.
RSL told me that—as with the BTEC point—more than a quarter of its students on some of its music qualification courses are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. In classical music courses we just do not get that diversity; it tends to be much more white and middle class. Having a breadth of qualifications means that young people from a range of backgrounds are able to engage and secure qualifications. If the Government are going to continue down this route, we should at least have a bit more transparency about what is being defunded and when.
To conclude, we have heard clearly from all sides that it is very difficult to understand why the Government want to scrap what is a very popular qualification with both students and employers. They are trying to shoehorn young people into T-levels or A-levels at a time when they need more support than ever to realise and rebuild their futures. It is such a retrograde step and will damage the prospects of the most disadvantaged students. If the Government are serious about levelling up—they tell us they are, although we have not heard much about it from any of the Conservative leadership candidates yet—and truly mean it when they say they want to champion vocational training, I hope the new Minister, whom I welcome to her place, listens to the thousands of people who signed this petition, college leaders, teachers and experts in this field up and down the country, as well as many former education Ministers and Secretaries of State, some of whom I have quoted. They really must think again.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank all those who pushed for today’s debate—particularly the Sixth Form Colleges Association and the Association of Colleges, which have been particularly vocal in standing up to the anti-BTEC orthodoxy that threatens to take hold in ministerial offices at the Department for Education.
This has been a really excellent debate with valuable contributions from both sides of the House. I will reflect on a few of them before I get into my remarks. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) presented the subject excellently and set up the debate. She said that a quarter of students who end up going to university do so through a BTEC. That is an important statistic, and Social Market Foundation research, which my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members raised, shows that 44% of white working-class students who attend university studied a BTEC. That point was repeated by the hon. Member for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), my hon. Friends the Members for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) and for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), and the hon. Member for Twickenham (Munira Wilson). It was one of the major themes of the debate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) reflected on the fact that her daughter had done a BTEC. My son also went through the BTEC route and ended up going to university. I think it is safe to say that, without BTECs, he would not have got that university education.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford spoke passionately and movingly about the difference that a BTEC made to her life and her life chances. My right hon. Friend the Member for Warley (John Spellar) spoke about the importance that these qualifications have, alongside T-levels, to employers in the west midlands.
The hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) spoke about the important role that BTEC played in addressing the shortage of nurses in her community, and the need for those people to stay locally. Controversially, she spoke about the value of evidence-based assessment. I warn her that she needs to stop that kind of talk if she wants to get back into this Government, but a lot of us appreciated that point, which was well made.
The hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) spoke about the equalities impact assessment and made the incredibly important point that, if these qualifications disappear, many students simply will not have the routes that are currently available to them. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins) spoke about neurodivergent students, and it is important that their needs are reflected. There is not a single one of us who is not regularly contacted at our constituency surgeries by the parents of neurodivergent students who are absolutely at their wits’ end. These courses enable such students to access the life opportunities that others take for granted, and they say that they really help them and matter to them, so we should take that incredibly seriously.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green)—I know from her time as the shadow Education Secretary that she is incredibly passionate about vocational students—said that the Government should end their obsession with saying that all students are either academic or vocational, and that they should recognise that some students want an approach that gives them a broad choice. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford paid tribute to her local college and said that this decision makes a mockery of levelling up. That is a really important point. It was obvious to anyone who watched the Conservative party leadership hustings last night that levelling up seems to have disappeared entirely from the lexicon of the potential Conservative leaders. It may be that they have decided to distance themselves from the mockery that my hon. Friend highlights. Many of us appreciated her contribution.
My hon. Friend the Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) said that, once they are lost, these qualifications cannot be easily replaced, and she reflected on the fact that many of her local institutions had contacted her with their concern about the approach that the Government are taking. Of course, that should not surprise us, because when the Government conducted their own consultation back in September, they found that 86% of respondents disagreed with the approach that they were proposing.
My hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Navendu Mishra) said that his constituency was one of the top 10 constituencies in the country in terms of the number of people from it who signed the petition. I know that all of us have had large numbers of constituents contacting us about this issue, but it seems like many of us have a lot to do if we are to catch up with Stockport in terms of the level of interest in this issue.
The hon. Member for Twickenham reflected on the comments of Lord Baker in another place, who described the situation as absolutely disgusting. Lord Baker also described this move as
“an act of educational vandalism.”
That should be reflected upon.
It is important to recognise that the broad coalition that is spearheaded by the #ProtectStudentChoice coalition and backed up by organisations such as the Sixth Form Colleges Association, Youth Employment UK, MillionPlus, the Apprenticeship Network and an array of employers and trade unions has forced the Government to change their position. It is important that we all make the point that the Government could look again at what they propose, but it is also important to recognise that there has been a significant U-turn from where the Government were back in September last year. The Labour party and I are pleased to have played our part in that campaign, urging Ministers to rethink their decision to axe these courses.
It is also worth recalling the history of the Government’s shambolic and damaging approach to this question that we are considering today. It started with Ministers besmirching the reputation of BTECs. The Skills Minister at the time, the hon. Member for Chichester (Gillian Keegan), who was the one before the one before the Minister here today—well, it was 10 months ago, of course—described BTECs as poor-quality qualifications, when announcing that they would be scrapped to make way for T-levels.
In September 2021 the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Nadhim Zahawi), who was the brand-new Education Secretary at the time—he was the one before the one before this week’s one, who is the fourth Education Secretary we have had in the space of a year. It is said that a year in the life of a human being is like seven years in the life of an Education Secretary. That appears to be the case. We get this dazzling array of new Education Secretaries, so I can only imagine how busy the person responsible for the board at the Department of Education must be, as they constantly have to change the name and the picture up in reception that shows the Education Secretary.
Returning to the point that I was making, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the right hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon, told us when he was Education Secretary that the Government would conduct a review. Many of us believe that the Government ought to have conducted the review before they sent out the message to students and lecturers that the qualification they were working towards was poor quality. Then the Government announced that they would defund 150 level 3 qualifications, which, in truth, is less than 10% of all of the level 3 qualifications out there.
We are pleased that the Government have performed something of a U-turn on this issue. In the final analysis, however, if they continue with their current policy, they will have scrapped less than 10% of all the level 3 qualifications currently on offer but, within that, they will have scrapped several courses that both employers and educationalists have real concern about. For example, the health and social care BTEC offers students a strong general introduction to the career opportunities available in the healthcare sector, and over 13,000 new students enrolled to study for it last year. It is important to reflect that if BTECs are scrapped, as the Government currently suggest they will be, a huge number of students will not have the breadth of options available to them.
There are a number of important questions for the Minister to respond to. Many colleges are deeply concerned that the amount of work experience required to replace even the limited number of BTECs being replaced cannot be found. The Government have already downgraded the work experience requirement in the early years of the T-level qualification. If it becomes apparent that providers in many areas are unable to find the amount of work experience required to deliver the number of T-levels, the Government will have a choice. Will the Government reduce the work experience demand further? Will they allow BTECs that do not have the work experience element to continue? Or will they accept that many students will be shut out of accessing a career for which there is a widespread skills shortage. Which one is it?
Secondly, if the Government’s view is that T-levels are more rigorous than BTECs, and they are scrapping BTECs, what is the plan for those students who previously would have been able to study a BTEC and will now not have a level 3 qualification at the age of 16 or 17? What assessment have the Government made of which students are likely to miss out, as has been reflected by so many contributors to the debate? Is it not the truth that it will mean more students from deprived communities, more white working-class boys and girls, more BAME students, and more students from rural and small-town communities will likely not have a level 3 qualification in place? If so, what plans are in place for those students?
Early feedback shows that T-levels require considerably more time studying and working. Many students, particularly those from deprived communities, are expected by their families to work alongside their studies. T-levels make that much more difficult, and that is being cited as a barrier to poorer students accessing them. What assessment has the Minister made of how that barrier could be addressed? Does it strengthen the case, in her view, for some sort of student subsidy, along the lines of the education maintenance allowance, to enable T-level students to afford to take up this opportunity? Does she accept that it was a huge mistake for the Government to denigrate a qualification that students were in the process of studying for before having completed their review? Given that so few courses are being replaced, will she apologise on behalf of the Government to the students, their lecturers and the employers, whose achievements the Government have belittled?
Finally, I have met many students studying T-levels. Although it varies from coast to coast, many clearly see them as a route to university. T-levels were initially envisaged as a route towards work. Does the Government accept that for many students that will not be the path they pursue? On that basis, is it still sensible for T-levels to be so narrowly focused on a single discipline? Should the Government not recognise that a broader qualification would allow students to learn which is the correct path for them from a position of knowledge?
The Labour party welcomed the introduction of T-levels. We want them to be a success and we hope that a future Labour Government will address the current flaws within them. I urge the Government, even at this late stage, to think again about the decision. We know that they will come back in September. There are a number of popular courses where educationalists and students tell us it would be deeply damaging if they were abolished. We want to ensure that our system of post-16 vocational and technical education is fit for purpose. Every MP in this debate, alongside the organisations championing the #ProtectStudentChoice campaign, want this too. Let the Government pause and put this decision on hold, and ensure that we have an evidence-based approach to its replacement. Let us not lose the qualifications that have real value to both employers and students.
Just before I call the Minister, I declare an interest. I left school at 16 and eventually got to higher education through vocational qualifications. I have the privilege of sitting here today because of that. The Minister has been extremely patient, listening for nearly two hours to the contributions. I am quite sympathetic to the position she is in, but I am sure that she will handle it well.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I thank the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) for opening this important debate, and every hon. Member who has taken part. A number of important questions have been raised, and I hope to cover many of them in my speech, so do bear with me—I have tons of notes here.
I am grateful for the opportunity to discuss my Department’s plans for the reform of level 3 qualifications, including how BTECs will fit into the future landscape alongside A-levels and T-levels. The introduction of T-levels is critical to driving up productivity and supporting social mobility. Based on the same standards as apprenticeships, T-levels have been co-designed with employers and draw on the very best examples of international practice. They will raise the quality and prestige of the technical offer in this country, ensuring that young people develop knowledge and skills that hold genuine labour market currency. It is this model that makes T-levels special, and it is the reason why we want them to be the qualifications of choice for 16 to 19-year-olds, alongside A-levels.
We have put significant investment into T-levels, as well as support for the sector, to help providers and employers prepare for them. We are confident that they will be a success and we will continue to carefully assess the progress of our reforms to ensure that no student or employer is left without access to the technical qualifications they need. There are now 10 T-levels available at over 100 providers across the country. By 2023, all T-levels will be available, and around 400 providers have signed up to deliver them.
We are introducing T-levels gradually to ensure quality from the start. Our confidence in their success is reinforced by the significant levels of investment and support that we have in place. We have made £400 million in capital funding available to support delivery since 2020, ensuring that young people can learn in world-class facilities and with industry-standard equipment. We have also put in place substantial support for schools, colleges and employers to help them deliver high-quality industry placements—I will cover this later, because I know that a few people were concerned about the placements—for all T-levels on a national scale.
We have supported providers in building capacity and networks with employers through the capacity and delivery fund, including through investing over £200 million since 2018-19. We want T-levels to deliver great outcomes for learners—I am sure that everybody in this room wants that—so we are committed to ensuring that teachers and leaders have the support they need to deliver them well.
In the two years to March 2020, we invested up to £20 million to help providers prepare for the delivery of T-levels, and to help teachers and leaders prepare for change. That included £8 million for the new T-level professional development offer, led by the Education and Training Foundation. We invested a further £15 million in 2020-21 and we have committed over £15 million in 2021-22 to continue this offer. Since its launch in 2019, almost 8,500 individuals and FE providers have benefited from T-level professional development programmes to help update their knowledge and skills, for first teaching T-levels in September 2020 and beyond. We will continue to publish regular updates and evidence as part of our annual T-level action plans, which can be found on the Government website.
On Thursday I met Leeds City College students and tutors—it was my first visit in this post. There was great enthusiasm for T-levels and for our apprenticeship programme. It was wonderful to see that the majority of the students I spoke to have already secured permanent employment in the sector that they studied in, which is an important move forward. We read about students securing permanent job roles at the companies that they did their T-level placements with, and other students securing apprenticeships. Employers congratulated existing students and looked forward to the next generation of T-level students starting their placements.
However, these essential reforms will have their full benefit only if we simultaneously address the complexities and variable quality of the broader qualifications system. Therefore, to support the introduction of T-levels, we are reviewing the qualification that sits alongside A-levels and T-levels to ensure that every funded qualification has a clear purpose, is high quality and will lead to good outcomes for students.
Successive reviews, including the Wolf and Sainsbury reviews, which have been touched on today, have found that the current qualifications system is overly complex and does not serve students or employers well. Through our reforms, we want every student to have confidence that every qualification on offer is high quality, to be able to easily understand what skills and knowledge that qualification will provide and, importantly, where that qualification will take them.
Our reforms are being made in three stages. First, we will remove the funding approval for qualifications with low or no enrolments. Secondly, we will remove the funding approval for qualifications that overlap with T-levels. Finally, we will reform the remaining qualifications—I will go into further detail on that in a moment. As part of securing early progress in the review, we confirmed that we would remove funding approval from qualifications that have had fewer than 100 publicly funded enrolments in a three-year period. Through this “low and no” process, we have confirmed that around 5,500 qualifications at level 3 have low or no enrolments, and will therefore have funding removed by August 2022.
The next phase of our reforms is to remove funding approval for qualifications that overlap with T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds, which will reduce the complexities for learners and employers. By “overlap”, we mean that the qualification is technical, that the outcome achieved by the young person is similar to that set out in a standard covered by a T-level, and that it aims to take a student to employment in the same occupational area. Just as T-levels are being introduced in phases, we are also taking a phased approach to removing funding approval from technical qualifications that overlap with T-levels. This provision lists qualifications overlapping with wave 1 and wave 2 T-levels, and includes only 160 qualifications of over 2,000 qualifications available at the time. We will publish the final list of qualifications that will have public funding withdrawn in September 2022.
We have listened carefully to concerns about the reform timetable and have built in an extra year so that public funding approval is not withdrawn from overlapping qualifications until 2024, to help ensure that providers are ready. That means qualifications that overlap with T-levels will not have funding approval removed until the relevant T-level has been available to all providers for at least a year. It is important that there are no gaps in provision, and that we retain the qualifications needed to support progression into occupations that are not covered by T-levels.
Our final reform—our policy statement on level 3 qualifications—was published in July last year. It set out the Government’s decision on the types of academic and technical qualifications that will be necessary alongside A-levels and T-levels at level 3. On the academic side, we are absolutely clear that students will be able to take applied general style qualifications, including BTECs, alongside A-levels as part of a mixed programme where they meet our new quality and necessity criteria. That could include areas with a practical or occupational focus, such as health and social care—that has been mentioned—or STEM subjects, such as engineering, applied science and IT.
We will also fund large academic qualifications that would typically make up a student’s full programme of study areas where there are no A-levels and no equivalent T-level. It can also include areas that are less served by A-levels, such as performing arts, creative arts or sports science, where they give access to HE courses with high levels of practical content.
I want to ask the hon. Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft) if we are the same person? We have a similar background: I too am a working-class girl who studied a BTEC national—although mine was in business and finance—and I also have a background in performing arts. It is evident that the Labour party is not the only broad church; the party of government is too. As a mature student I went on to study economics at the Open University, and international relations at the University of Lincoln while I was a parliamentary candidate—I know what it is like for someone to juggle things and try to pay their way at the same time.
I listened carefully to the Minister as she described the new landscape and how she sees it fitting together. She said a few moments ago that there was confusion about the range of qualifications that had been on offer. Listening to her just now, I have to say that I am still pretty confused about the landscape that we are moving into. What do the Government plan to do to communicate really clearly, to students, institutions and employers, how the new landscape will work?
If the hon. Lady bears with me, I will come to that point; it was touched on earlier and I will answer it with regard to the pathways.
On a more technical route, we will fund two groups of technical qualifications alongside T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. The first will be qualifications in areas where there is not a T-level. The second will be specialist qualifications that develop more specialist skills and knowledge that could be acquired through a T-level alone, helping to protect the skills supply in more specialist industries and adding value to the T-level offer. Adults will be able to study a broader range of technical qualifications than 16 to 19-year-olds, which takes into account prior learning and experience. That includes technical qualifications that allow entry into occupations that are already served by T-levels.
I hope that has made it clear that we are not creating a binary system. Our aim is to ensure that students can choose from a variety of high-quality options, which I will go into. That is why it is important that we reform the system, to ensure that all qualifications approved for funding alongside A-levels and T-levels are high quality, have a clear purpose and deliver great outcomes, which is the most important thing.
As the post-16 qualification review continues, a new funding approval process will confirm that all qualifications that we continue to fund alongside A-levels and T-levels are both necessary and high quality. Both Ofqual and the Institute for Apprenticeships and Technical Education will have a role in approving those qualifications, and they are currently consulting on their approaches at level 3.
We are unashamed about raising the quality of technical education in this country. Students will benefit from the reforms because they will take qualifications that are high quality and meet the needs of employers, putting them in a strong position to progress to further study or skilled employment. Where students need more support to achieve a level 3 qualification in the future, we are working with providers to provide high-quality routes to further study. We have introduced a T-level transition programme to support learners in progressing to T-levels. We are also piloting an academic progression programme to test whether there is a gap in provision, which supports students to progress to and achieve high-quality level 3 academic qualifications in future.
We are determined to act so that all young people can learn about the exciting, high-quality opportunities that technical education and apprenticeships can offer. Through the Skills and Post-16 Education Act 2022, we have strengthened the law so that all pupils have the opportunity for six encounters with providers of technical education qualifications and apprenticeships as they progress through school in years 8 to 13. For the first time, we are introducing parameters around the duration and content of those encounters, so that we can ensure that they are of high quality. The new requirements will strengthen the original provider access legislation—the Baker clause.
We will continue to gather evidence to ensure that our reforms across both technical and academic qualifications are working as intended. In particular, the unit for future skills, as announced in the levelling-up White Paper, will ensure that across Government we are collecting and making available the best possible information to show whether courses are delivering the outcome that we want. That will help give students the best possible opportunity to get high-skilled jobs in local areas.
Employers will benefit from our reforms, which place them at the heart of the system and will ensure that technical qualifications are genuinely grounded in the needs of the workplace. The Construction Industry Training Board has said that the reforms to technical education are a great opportunity to put things right that industry should seize. We will also strengthen and clarify progression routes for academic qualifications, to ensure that every funded qualification has a clear purpose—that is vital—is of high quality and could lead to good outcomes.
I will now touch on some of the questions that were raised across the Chamber.
The educational plans that the Minister has described are exactly the plans that the petitioners are concerned about. Has the debate given her pause for thought about going ahead with the reforms and then assessing the outcomes—as she has just described—rather than waiting and looking again at the reforms before they are cut, because then it will be too late? We will simply not know how many people are not doing the courses, rather than assessing the people who are doing the courses and their educational outcomes. Has the debate given her pause for thought about the plans that she has just outlined?
I thank the hon. Lady for that question. We are consulting vigorously, and I was actually going to bring in her points here. She mentioned colleges in her area. I happily meet colleges, and that goes for colleges represented across the Chamber. My ears are open to this, because it is something I am passionate about. Social mobility is a big thing for me. Coming from a regular background, I want to ensure that every child has a great start in life, so my door is open.
I was asked about creating a barrier for disadvantaged and BAME students. We are not withdrawing funding approval from all BTECs and other applied general qualifications. We will continue to fund BTECs and applied general-type qualifications as part of a mixed programme where there is need and where they meet new criteria for quality and necessity. Students who take qualifications that are more likely to be replaced have the most to gain from the changes, because in future they will take qualifications that are of a higher quality, putting them in a stronger position to progress to further skills or skilled employment. The most important outcome is that they have a decent start in life and good-quality jobs.
The Minister’s point somewhat misses the tenor of the debate so far. She is hearing that a lot of students from more deprived communities will not even get on to a course because of its make-up or because it will be full time, meaning that they will be unable to afford to do the course. Simply saying that they might have better opportunities when they complete a course does not take into account the fact that lots of them will not even get on to a course in the first place. I hope the Minister will look into that when she does her review.
Not necessarily, but I will take the hon. Gentleman’s point on board.
T-levels will equip more young people with the skills, knowledge and experience to access skilled employment or further technical study, including higher education in related technical areas. We want as many young people as possible to benefit, which is why we have focused on supporting access. That includes introducing a T-levels transition programme and flexibilities for SEND students, and removing the English and maths exit requirements.
I was asked about students who have dyslexia and their frustration about taking exams. That is already covered in the Equality Act 2010; it must be considered whether a student will need reasonable adjustments, which can include being given 25% extra time when sitting exams.
There was a question about Oxbridge not accepting T-levels. Oxford’s admissions office says that BTECs are unlikely to be suitable for its courses unless taken alongside A-levels.
If the hon. Lady had let me finish rather than jumping in, she would have heard the full context. First, Oxford’s admissions office says that BTECs are unlikely to be suitable for the university’s courses unless taken with side A-levels, as it says on the website. Secondly, we are continuing to engage with Oxford and Cambridge on accepting T-levels, so watch this space.
There were some questions about different pathways and what sorts of qualifications young people will be able to take, other than T-levels and A-levels. On the academic route, students are able to take qualifications similar to the current applied generals in mixed-study programmes with A-levels where they complement the skills and knowledge in A-levels, and where they enhance students’ opportunities for progression to further study in related fields of HE. That could include areas with a practical or occupational focus, such as health and social care, STEM and subjects such as engineering, applied science and IT.
We will also fund large academic qualifications that would typically make up a student’s full programme of study in areas where there are no A-levels and no equivalent T-levels. That could include areas that are less well served by A-levels, such as performing arts, creative arts and sports science, for access to HE courses with higher levels of practical content. We will also continue to fund the international baccalaureate diploma and access to the HE diploma for adults.
As I have already said, where a course is not covered by a T-level or A-level—I mentioned performing arts, creative arts and sports science—the option is available.
We will fund two groups of technical qualifications alongside T-levels for 16 to 19-year-olds. The first will be qualifications in areas where there is no T-level. The second will be specialist qualifications that develop more specialist skills and knowledge than can be acquired through T-levels alone, helping to protect the skills supply in more specialist industries, and adding value to the T-level.
Adults will be able to study a broader range of technical qualifications than 16 to 19-year-olds, which takes account of prior learning experience. Those include technical qualifications that allow entry into occupations that are already served by T-levels, such as data technician or senior production chef.
On the pathway, we have made it clear that students will be able to take BTECs and applied general qualifications alongside A-levels as part of a mixed programme. Our impact assessment recognises that students who take qualifications that are more likely to be defunded have the most to gain from these changes.
There were questions about overlap, and about students who have already signed up for courses. All qualifications on the final overlap will be funded until the current students have completed their studies.
There was also a question about work placements, which is a valid one. We have put in place substantial support for schools, colleges and employers to help them deliver high-quality industry placements for all T-levels on a national scale. We are engaging directly with employers through the Department’s employer engagement team to develop a pipeline of industry placements, and we are providing an extensive programme of focused support to help ensure employers and providers are able to deliver placements.
We have a national campaign in place to raise the profile of T-levels to an employer audience, and we have established a network of T-level employer ambassadors to engage with others in their industries on T-levels and placements. We have also implemented different delivery models to ensure placements can be delivered by employers across all industries and all locations.
It is right that the Minister is doing all that engagement with employers and so forth, but what about the students who will not be able to take up work placements, given their other commitments? This is one of the advantages of studying a BTEC. That 45-day commitment might not be possible, particularly for mature students—possibly like the Minister herself.
If anything, we could flip that on its head, because this is a unique selling point. In these work placements, students will gain the soft skills needed in employment, and valuable experience to build up their CVs, which can help secure them future employment.
We have invested over £200 million since 2018-19 through the capacity and delivery fund to support providers in building capacity and networks with employers. We will continue to monitor the delivery of placements and work closely with providers and employers to identify what support they will need to deliver high-quality placements.
I am grateful to the Minister for laying out what the Government are doing, but there are not enough work placements for the small number of people doing T-levels at this stage—that is why the Government have downgraded them—much less for the sort of expansion she is talking about. We hear what the Government are doing about it, but the question I asked her is: in the event that they cannot get enough work placements, what are the Government going to do?
No, but I have seen at first hand what the Department is doing with employer engagement, so watch this space. The shadow Minister can come back to me if it is to the contrary, but we are finding—the evidence is showing—that more and more employers are signing up for this.
On the question about our new Prime Minister, the reforms were mentioned in our manifesto. It said:
“Our reforms and investment in education and skills mean more children are leaving school better equipped for working life and there are more high quality apprenticeships.”
On the evidence base, the impact assessment was published alongside the level 3 Government consultation response in July last year, as I have already mentioned, and it is on the Government website. However, the case for change, providing evidence of the need for reform and for T-levels, was published in July 2016, and the document about streamlining qualifications at level 3 was published in March 2019.
We have an opportunity to put things right that industry can seize on. We can also strengthen and clarify progression routes for academic qualifications, as I have already said. I would like to thank all colleagues, from across the House—
On the Minister’s point about putting things right, I wonder whether she will comment on this Government scrapping education maintenance allowance in 2010, I believe. They have not replaced it. That fits in with the theme of defunding education. Will the Minister comment? The data pointed out that because that £30 allocation was scrapped, fewer young people went into further education.
I had a problem with mishearing before and I may have misheard again, but I do not think I have heard the Minister mention the word “choice” once. The central argument made by all sides in this debate is about the reduction of choice. We have heard for many years from Conservative Ministers and different Conservative Governments that choice is fundamental to their philosophy, yet here they seem to be reducing choice, and that will come at the cost of the most disadvantaged. Yes, a few BTECs will remain, but the vast majority of pupils will be forced into A-levels or T-levels or just to go straight into the workplace with very few qualifications. Please will the Minister address that point—how the Government are decimating choice by defunding BTECs in this way?
I completely disagree. To me, the most important thing is outcome. There is choice there. We have said that if people—[Interruption.] Let me finish, thank you. There is choice. Look at apprenticeships. To me, the most important thing is the outcome, as I have said. If people can have better quality and higher paying jobs, that is a better start in life than taking courses that do not have the same outcomes.
I am going to conclude. I thank all colleagues, from across the House, for their contributions today. It has been a real pleasure to discuss the importance of developing our skills system. Transforming post-16 education and skills is at the heart of our plan to build back better and level up the country. We are ensuring that students everywhere have access to the qualifications that will give them the skills to succeed. T-levels are a critical step in the quality of the technical offer. They have been co-designed with more than 250 leading employers and are based on the best international examples of technical education. But these reforms will have their full benefit only if we streamline and address the complexities and variable quality of the broader level 3 qualification.
As a former BTEC student myself, I understand the benefits of technical education. [Interruption.] I will continue. I want to reassure everyone across the House that we are not withdrawing funding for all BTECs. Students will be able to take BTECs and applied general qualifications alongside A-levels, as part of a mixed programme, where those qualifications meet the new quality and other criteria. We want every student to have confidence that every qualification on offer is high quality—that, rather than choice, is so important: high quality, which will lead them into jobs—and to understand what skills and knowledge—[Interruption.]
I thank every Member who spoke. We heard incredible speeches from my hon. Friends the Members for Birkenhead (Mick Whitley), for Luton South (Rachel Hopkins), for Lewisham, Deptford (Vicky Foxcroft), for Putney (Fleur Anderson) and for Stockport (Navendu Mishra), and the hon. Members for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), for Bath (Wera Hobhouse), for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow) and for Twickenham (Munira Wilson), and many other Members made powerful interventions.
The petition, which was signed by more than 100,000 people, is about preserving and protecting student choice, and unfortunately I do not believe the Minister addressed that in her response. The proposal will cut funding and reduce choice for the young people we say—well, many of us say—we want to ensure have choice and opportunity.
We heard about the transformative impact that BTECs can have on lives and vocational training—including for you, Sir Mark, among many others. Nobody is saying that T-levels are not the way to go, but students need options and choices, and the Minister did not acknowledge that.
I hope the Minister recognises the strength of feeling across the House. This is not party political: Members from all parties spoke about the difficulties that students from disadvantaged backgrounds—particularly those with special educational needs or a disability, and those from ethnic minority backgrounds—will face. I do not believe the Minister fully addressed how the new qualifications will support disabled students. If she did cover that, I ask that she writes to update me, but I do not believe that those points were addressed.
We have to keep pressing the Government on this issue. I hope that there will be transparency, and that they will involve campaign leaders and organisations, trade unions and student bodies in their review of the new T-levels. At the end of the day, although the Minister studied BTECs herself, I am just not sure she fully gets it.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 592642, relating to BTEC qualifications.