Students and parents across the country will be relieved that the government has finally reversed its policy on A-level results. But A-level and GCSE students are not the only ones who have been left in the lurch by this year’s results fiasco. Britain’s BTEC students, who have studied hard for technical qualifications, have also been caught up in the confusion.
Delays to results for some BTEC Nationals – equivalent to A-level – have caused frustration for students eager to secure apprenticeships or university places. Pearson, the largest administrator of BTECs, has attributed the delay to some centres missing deadlines for submitting student details.
Of the 1,568 BTEC qualifications offered by Pearson, furthermore, over half used the same standardisation model applied to A-levels and GCSEs, and awarding agencies have been asked by Ofqual “to review their approach.”
But BTECs are only a handful of the 17,538 vocational and technical qualifications (VTQs) offered every year by over 150 different agencies across the UK. They are offered in topics as diverse as Sailing and Aeronautical Engineering to Fire Behaviour Training and Fish Management. Many other agencies, such as City and Guilds and ABRSM, the music exam board, also fall under the bracket of VTQs.
An estimated 280,000 students now take at least one VTQ at higher secondary level every year, up from 80,000 in 2008. That is around half of those who take just A-levels.
Discussion of VTQs rarely occurs in national coverage of annual educational results yet, according to research by the Social Market Foundation, they are “particularly important among students with demographic characteristics often associated with greater disadvantage”. In the context of debates on social mobility, many offer an alternate route to higher education. UCAS data from 2016 showed that a quarter of all applicants to universities had studied at least one BTEC, rising to nearly a half of black students entering higher education.
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Many others incorporate practical experience and prepare students to go straight into work. International education agency AIM, for example, provides assessments for apprenticeships. These allow participants to move full-time into areas as diverse as child care, video-game development and log-house building after learning “on the job”.
Despite the disruption caused to some BTECs, the complex landscape of VTQs has proven resilient to Covid disruption. According to Ofqual data, less than a third of subjects were assessed on “calculated results”. In a study of over 100,000 students Ofqual found that “the awarding of these VTQs does not seem to have been majorly impacted in 2020 by the situation imposed by the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic” compared with the previous two years. Most VTQs are built on modules assessed throughout the year so that “students will have “banked” results from units they had already taken”, an Ofqual spokesperson says. Most qualifications were also too small for standardisation using algorithms.
Yet the world of vocational and technical education is set for a shake-up next month, when the new “T-level” – a streamlined, more respectable alternative to BTECs – begins its trial at selected schools. Meanwhile, a £1.6bn fund earmarked for boosting apprenticeships promises to help graduates with technical and vocational ambitions into a dismal job market.
Beyond the disruption of the pandemic, too, such an education intends to receive a more sustained focus. According to Make UK, the manufacturers’ organisation, the disruption to international supply chains wrought by pandemic may have encouraged greater willingness to invest in industrial jobs domestically. The government’s “levelling up” agenda, in its emphasis on restoring opportunity to the regions, also places an implicit emphasis on skillsets and aspirations outside the London-centric “information economy”.
As universities now bear the full burden of failures in this year’s exam system through oversubscribed places, policy makers, teachers and parents may also want to re-think the country’s thirty-year emphasis on creating a nation of graduates at the cost of technical and vocational skills. As with many things, it’s a consideration that the pandemic has forced fully into view.