‘Scrapping BTECs is disastrous. Labour would be right to pause the plan’

James Kewin

Labour’s approach to policymaking is not unlike that of Italian football teams in years gone by – cautious, controlled and defensive-minded. This approach, known as catenaccio (door-bolt in Italian), could be frustrating to watch, particularly for those that yearned for a more adventurous playing style. But it was also highly effective, underpinned as it was by the philosophy that if your opponent cannot score, they cannot win. 

However, a safety-first approach also has its limitations – if your team cannot take goalscoring opportunities when they come along, you cannot win either. In education, the Conservatives continue to present Labour with gilt-edged chances to score, but their plan to scrap the majority of BTEC qualifications is surely the footballing equivalent of an open goal. 

The recent letter from Bridget Phillipson to the Protect Student Choice campaign (a coalition of 30 organisations opposed to the scrapping of BTECs that represent students, staff and leaders in schools, colleges and universities) suggests the party is ready to capitalise on this opportunity.

The letter committed the next Labour government to pause and review the government’s plan. This was universally well-received and has given some much-needed hope to everyone involved in sixth form education that a hasty and unnecessary cull of BTECs might be avoided. The party now has the chance to highlight the educational and economic case for adopting a more considered approach and in doing so develop a clear electoral advantage.  

Young people in England can currently choose between three types of qualification at the age of 16: academic qualifications such as A-levels, technical qualifications that lead to a specific occupation, and applied general qualifications such as BTECs that combine the development of practical skills with academic learning. The government’s plan is to replace this three-route model with a two-route model of A-levels and T-levels (a new suite of technical qualifications), where most young people pursue one of these qualifications at the age of 16. As a result, the majority of BTECs will be scrapped. 

Educationally, this will be disastrous. Scrapping BTECs will leave many students without a viable pathway at the age of 16 and will hamper progress to higher education or skilled employment. Disadvantaged young people are amongst those with the most to lose from this plan, a conclusion from the Department for Education’s own equalities impact assessment: “those from SEND backgrounds, Asian ethnic groups, disadvantaged backgrounds, and males [are] disproportionately likely to be affected”.

Social mobility will also suffer. Research from the Social Market Foundation found that 44% of white working-class students that enter university studied at least one BTEC and 37% of black students enter with only BTEC qualifications. Research from the Nuffield Foundation found that a quarter of students now enter university with BTEC qualifications, and that they are more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds. The report’s authors express their concerns about the plans to scrap many BTECs and conclude that “…without the availability of BTECs many disadvantaged students might not have attended university at all”.

Economically, the implications are little better. The government believes that scrapping BTECs will increase the number of students that take T-levels. Ministers have become so fixated on this output that they have lost sight of the much more important outcome -ensuring all students can access a high quality qualification. As a result, government spending on T-levels has gone through the roof – a recent report from the education select committee found that over £1 billion has been spent since 2017 (an astonishing figure given that just 15,410 students are currently enrolled on a T-level). 

This is particularly reckless given the chronic underinvestment in the education of the 99% of 16 to 18 year olds that are not studying a T-level. According to the IFS, government spending on school sixth form students in 2024-25 will be 22% below 2010-11 levels. 

Rather than boosting the number of students that take T-levels, most schools and colleges believe that scrapping BTECs is more likely to increase the number of students that take A-levels (with mixed results) or that disengage from education altogether. The economic cost of dealing with the increase in the number of young people not in education, employment or training (NEET) will be significant, yet is unlikely to be on Rachel Reeves’ radar. 

Electorally, this issue has the potential to showcase Labour at its best – standing up for the most disadvantaged young people, supporting employers by retaining qualifications they value and acting in a fiscally responsible way. And this is not a niche policy area: the Protect Student Choice campaign estimates that more than 250,000 students are currently enrolled on an applied general qualification, with at least 68% studying a qualification that will be scrapped under the government’s plans. 

The shades of catenaccio in Bridget Phillipson’s very welcome letter can perhaps be explained by the party’s desire not to appear anti-T level. But it is perfectly possible to be both pro-T level and pro-BTEC. T-levels are a welcome addition to the qualifications landscape and a genuine alternative to many of the technical qualifications that are currently available to young people. 

But T-levels are not the mass market replacement for BTECs that the government believes them to be. They are different qualifications that serve a different purpose, and we need both to flourish alongside A-levels if the party is to achieve its ambitions to break down the barriers to opportunity and boost economic growth. By committing to pause and review the plan to scrap BTECs, Labour has created the foundation on which to build the educational, economic and electoral case for change – a perfect goalscoring opportunity and one we hope the party takes. 

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