James Kirkup

Vocational students are being treated with contempt – again

Vocational students are being treated with contempt – again
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England’s third national lockdown is an avalanche of news, affecting just about every bit of our lives. It’s a lot for anyone to grasp, but that’s still not an excuse for the fact that, once again, young people studying for technical qualifications such as BTECs have been ignored and let down.

According to the Association of Colleges, around 135,000 students are due to take assessments or sit exams in colleges this week: some exams are due today. And while the Prime Minister in his televised address last night talked about school and the need to cancel summer exams such as GCSEs and A-levels, the Government currently considers that BTEC tests should still go ahead this week.

Not that the kids taking those tests would have learned that from the PM. They had to wait nearly two hours more last night for the Department for Education to announce – via Twitter – that:

'Vocational exams in England will continue as planned in January. Students taking exams should attend as scheduled.'

By the time that desultory tweet was sent, at least one FE college had mistakenly, if understandably, told its students that the PM’s announcement meant their exams were actually cancelled.

The manner of that DFE 'announcement' last night says rather a lot about the importance Government assigns to technical qualifications and the people doing them.

The decision to press ahead with vocational exams means that at the same time as judging it unsafe for teachers and school pupils to go to schools this week, the Government expects college staff and students to show up. (To be clear, not all BTEC tests require physical attendance.)

Many of those students are likely to be poorly prepared thanks to recent Covid disruptions. They and their parents might well be worried about the infection risks of attending assessments: some college leaders expect significant numbers of no-shows.

Is going ahead with BTEC exams the least bad option? Was it the outcome of a considered, balanced decision-making process? What are the risks and benefits of going ahead? There are all sorts of important questions here, to which BTEC students and their families deserve answers.

At the very least, this outcome should be explained, loudly and clearly, to the people affected by the people responsible for the decision. Instead, they got a 17-word tweet shortly before 10pm.

Even by the standards of recent days, the handling of this issue is shoddy, and telling. Of course, the Government has a lot to deal with over the pandemic. Of course, not every detail of something as big as a national lockdown can go into the text of the PM’s address.

But can you imagine the PM going on TV and not making clear whether imminent school-based exams were still happening? Of course not. Those children and their parents matter to politicians, albeit not quite enough for the PM to take decisions about closing their schools with more notice. Yet even that is more consideration than the Government appears to have shown BTEC students.

Much the same might be said of a lot of media coverage today, where BTEC exams are generally afforded a single bald sentence tacked on to the end of coverage about schools.

Of course, this is hardly novel. I’ve written here a couple of times about our national bias against vocational education and the people who tend to do it. 

But this is a Government that is supposed to be acutely sensitive to the needs and importance of vocational routes and their students. First, because if 'levelling up' is to mean anything, it is surely better regional productivity growth, which cannot happen without better skills and technical education. And second, because the Conservative party is increasingly reliant for votes on people who did not take the route of A-levels then university and whose kids might not do so either.

Hence some fine words on technical education from Boris Johnson and Gavin Williamson over the last year; Williamson has come close to saying he’d rather his kids became apprentices than got degrees. Whatever his faults elsewhere, that’s a pretty strong challenge to Westminster’s cultural bias in favour of HE.

Of course, all governments say nice things about skills and vocational training, but the hard political imperatives involved meant that this one might just have meant it: I know there are people in and around the current government who are genuinely committed to doing better for the 'other 50 per cent' of the education system.

But the management of BTEC exams this week suggests that the people who do those exams are once again being treated as an afterthought. About the only positive to find here is that at least they and the education system that support them are used to such contempt.

Disclosure: In 2017, my think-tank, the Social Market Foundation, received sponsorship from Pearson, the company that runs BTEC qualifications.

Written byJames Kirkup

James Kirkup is director of the Social Market Foundation and a former political editor of the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph.

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