James Kirkup James Kirkup

A-levels vs BTECs is the story of British politics

Exam question: what percentage of 17 and 18-year-olds sit A-levels? The answer – I’ll come to it in a bit – might just be the most important fact in British politics that most people in British politics don’t know. I ask because this is A-level results week, the annual festival of photogenic teenagers jumping joyously to mark their results and annoying celebrities sharing think-positive truisms about failing your exams not being the end of the world. It’s all lovely and familiar and predictable and utterly missing the big picture. That big picture is this: A-level day caused Brexit, makes Britain a divided and unfair country, entrenches inequality, celebrates unfairness and generally sums up all that is wrong and unbalanced about our economy, politics and public policy.  But still, nice pics, eh? OK, I’m aware that the paragraph above needs a little unpacking. I also concede that I might just have exaggerated a teeny bit for effect. But bear with me. Let me start with the answer to that exam question: 50 per cent, more or less. Half of all children finish their 16-18 education by taking A-levels. Which means that half do not. This is not, I suggest, a fact that is generally made clear in the extensive media coverage and political-public debate around A-level results day. The casual follower of this annual event might well conclude that A-levels are pretty much the be-all and end-all of 16-18 qualifications: it’s not as if you’d hear very much about people who don’t do A-levels. You almost certainly won’t be aware, unless you’re directly involved, that today (Wednesday, 14 August) is BTEC results day, for kids who study for Business and Technology Education Council certificates. While tomorrow’s A-level results will get blanket coverage, BTEC results will pass by with barely a whisper of comment. One reason you won’t hear much about that is that those kids tend to be poorer and less white than the ones who do A-levels.

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