James Kirkup

Don’t forget about BTECs during the A-level circus

Don't forget about BTECs during the A-level circus
A student reacts as he opens the envelope containing his A level results, Picture: Getty
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The summer ritual of A-level results day is so well known it's easy to forget the thousands of students receiving their BTec National results.

That’s the intro to a BBC News item on vocational qualification results issued today. It’s also the story of British culture and economics, told in a single, unwittingly revealing, sentence.

Around 250,000 kids will get BTEC results today – that’s almost as many as the 300,000 or so who get A-level results. But of course, media and political attention paid to the latter group is vastly greater than the former.

Why? Because BTECs are for other people: people who are poorer and whose parents didn’t do A-levels or go to university; people who don’t consider higher education as the default option after school (though quite a few people do use BTECs to get into uni). BTECs are not done by the people who write BBC headlines and stories, or edit newspapers, or sit in Parliament, or run the country from Whitehall offices.

Those people do A-levels then go to university, and their kids do A-levels and go to university. As do all the people they know. So naturally they assume, often unconsciously, that everyone does the same.

The power of this cultural bias is enough to blind even those whose very purpose is to please as many people as possible. I won’t bother naming them, but today I’ve seen several MPs tweeting ‘good luck to people getting A-level results today in X constituency’ messages, apparently unaware that other kids in their area are also getting other qualifications.

The consequences of our cultural bias towards ‘academic’ routes and against vocational education are so many and so serious that I could – but probably won’t – write a book about them. They include economic consequences: UK productivity is lower than that of comparable economies, partly because we overlook the importance of technical and vocational education. There are social consequences: if you worry about Britain being a socially divided nation, you should pay attention to the different worlds occupied by those who do A-levels and those who do BTECs.

As I wrote here last year, the annual media circus of A-level day just tells half of the country that they’re less important than the other half. Today, our national broadcaster tells 250,000 BTEC students they’re ‘easy to forget’ because everyone is paying attention to A-level candidates. So much for social cohesion. If you belong to the BTEC class, you are repeatedly told by those at the top of British culture that you are second-best – if they notice you at all.

And that has political consequences. Educational attainment is the most overlooked dividing line in British politics. The Conservatives won their 2019 landslide because they won over more voters whose highest qualifications are GCSEs or equivalent. Labour in 2019 increased its share of the degree-educated electorate. British politics is increasingly a contest between those who represent non-graduates and those who represent graduates.

Because technical and vocational education is so often ignored by a political class made up of A-levels-then-uni people, the provision of that education is not as good as it should be. If you don’t do A-levels, you face a bewilderingly complex web of different qualifications (BTECs are just one of the options), some of which aren’t useful.

The Editor of this magazine has a point when he says that vocational BTECs don’t get the same critical scrutiny that other qualifications do. Though I think we should always be very careful not to fall into the trap of dismissing all BTECs as inferior, partly because that’s impolite to the people who do them, and partly because it ignores the evidence that quite a lot of big employers (and a few of the more enlightened universities) regard good BTECs as having real value.

As someone who has been banging on about our cultural bias against vocational education for a few years now, I can see a few reasons for cautious optimism. The nature of the 2019 election result has reminded both big parties that ‘BTEC people’ matter electorally: the Tories will only hold their majority if they hold onto their non-A-level voters, and Labour will only regain power when it regains their confidence.

That, I think, should lead both parties to pay much more attention to vocational education, further education, apprenticeships and all those things that ‘Other People’ do. Better provision of technical education is much more important than fighting culture wars about universities. Next year’s introduction of T-levels – technical qualifications meant to rank alongside A-levels – will be an important moment, whether or not those qualifications are a success.

And media coverage is getting a bit better too. Although I began this piece with a grumble about the clumsy and revealing BBC copy, the fact that the piece was written at all is a positive. Too many people in positions of authority still assume that BTECs are for ‘other people’, but it is still better to talk about those people than to ignore them.

Declaration:

In 2017, the Social Market Foundation, my think-tank, did research on BTEC students, which you can read here. That research was funded by Pearson, the company that runs the BTEC scheme. The SMF retained full editorial independence and has no continuing relationship with Pearson.