Leaders of England’s technical colleges have reacted with dismay at UK government plans to push ahead with a radical restructuring of the 16-plus education sector aimed at boosting the take-up of vocational qualifications.
The plans, which the education secretary Gavin Williamson will announce on Wednesday, will aim to simplify the choice for post-GCSE students, offering either A-Levels for academic students or a new ‘T-Levels’ for those following technical qualifications.
However, ahead of the launch of the flagship reform, education chiefs warned the government was moving too far, too fast.
They said that scrapping existing vocational qualifications — such as BTECs which pupils use to access qualifications in a wide range of subjects from cooking to hairdressing — would leave tens of thousands of students unable to continue their training.
David Hughes, chief executive of the Association of Colleges said while colleges welcomed T-Levels in principle, the Department for Education was using a “sledgehammer to crack a nut” by driving through the reforms in a “confrontational” manner.
“If the government really wants to level up, it needs to slow down this major reform and recognise the risks to thousands of young people,” he said, adding that thousands of disadvantaged students would be left with “limited or no routes to progress into work”.
Bill Watkin, chief executive of the Sixth Form Colleges Association, warned that closing down the BTEC route would be bad for both social mobility and the economy. “The proposals set out today have the potential to be hugely damaging to the prospects and life chances of young people in England,” he said.
The government said the T-Level restructuring, which will be phased in from 2023, was necessary to streamline the vocational qualifications landscape to try and emulate more successful systems in the EU.
At present the UK government funds some 4,000 highly varied technical qualifications, such as BTECs and Cambridge Technicals, compared with 500 in countries like Germany and Switzerland, according to the education department.
To force change, it will remove funding from all courses that overlap with A Levels and T Levels, or those that did not meet a “high quality bar”. The list of courses that will lose funding will be published towards the end of the next academic year.
Williamson said in a statement ahead of the launch that the reforms would root out “second rate qualifications” and help fill the UK’s skills gap.
“These reforms will simplify and streamline the current system, ensuring that whatever qualification a young person or an adult chooses they can be confident that it will be high-quality and will lead to good outcomes,” he said.
However, college heads warned that the requirement for successful T-Level students to achieve at least a Grade 4 in both maths and English would mean 20 per cent of students would be excluded from the new qualification.
Many colleges also warned they are not prepared for the new T-Level qualifications which require 45 days of impactful work experience, a requirement made harder by many companies emerging from 16 months of homeworking during the Covid-19 pandemic.
John Callaghan, principal of Solihull College in the West Midlands, said there was a danger of the government “steamrollering” the reforms. “Don’t destroy the breadth, because these are very successful courses for a number of students,” he added.
Gerry McDonald, the group principal of New City College, one of the largest colleges in the country with over 10,000 post-GCSE students, said the government was also in danger of losing public support for the reforms by forcing them through on a “politically driven” timetable.
“It’s a ridiculous deadline. I have 4,000 students on non T-Level qualifications — like sport and health and social care — and now they will need to do a T-Level qualification in two years' time that hasn’t even been written.”