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A-levels vs BTECs is the story of British politics

14 August 2019

2:00 PM

14 August 2019

2:00 PM

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. Another is that almost all the people who decide what gets reported and talked about in this country did A-levels then went to university; they did not do BTECs and they do not expect their children to do BTECs either.  People Like Us do A-levels. BTECS are for Other People.

BTECs and other vocational qualifications matter though. Half of all the white working-class kids in England who go on to university have at least one BTEC; much the same is true of black HE students. In the north-east of England, 35 per cent of white working-class students go to university solely on the basis of their BTECs.

BTECs are part of the forgotten half of the education system, where you’ll also find apprenticeships and Further Education, which has seen its budget cut by a fifth since 2010. That’s a 20 per cent cut for a service that educates more than two million people a year. Compare and contrast the political attention that’s had with the volume of interest in school budgets.

What does all this have to do with Brexit, and political dividing lines? The vote to Leave was many things, but one of them was an expression of educational difference. The higher a person’s level of education, the more likely they were to vote Remain. This is probably even more important than the age divide over Brexit that gets far more attention. Rob Ford at Manchester University has shown that the age divide is driven by education:

Younger voters with low education qualifications were as likely to vote Leave as older voters with low education levels.

Here, a caveat is needed. Observing that people with degrees are more likely to vote Remain than people without is not the same as saying that Remainers are cleverer than Leavers. Anyone who does say such a thing is rude and wrong.  Anyone who reads this article as saying that is incorrect. I’m not saying people with degrees are smarter than people who don’t have degrees. I’m saying people with degrees tend to have different experiences, outlooks and values, and those things influence the way they vote. And people who don’t do A-levels then go to university have experiences, outlooks and values that help determine the way they vote.

My theory of why non-graduate voters were more inclined to vote Leave is that their vote was at least in part an expression of unhappiness with the way Britain works for people who don’t do A-levels, go to university then get a graduate job in some other part of the UK, probably the south east. (Six months after they graduate, a quarter of all graduates from English universities are in London.)

And generally, the UK economy works pretty badly for people who don’t follow the A-levels-then-uni route. Their qualifications are less valued and respected; the places where they might get skills and training are poorly supported. The jobs that follow are too often less lucrative and more secure than they’d like.

Politics serves them quite badly too, as does what we might grandly call ‘national conversation’. We are country run by graduates that often looks, sounds and feels like a country run for graduates. Jon Yates, until recently special adviser at the Department for Education, puts it this way:

We have been crap at technical education though for 70+ years. Why? Fundamentally, because people with influence (politicians, journalists, business leaders) don’t think about it. Why don’t influential people think about technical education? … Because hardly any influential people did it. They therefore think most other people did A-levels and went to uni.

The consequences of cultural bias towards graduates and neglect of technical education are endless: poor skills mean lower productivity which means lower investment, worse jobs, lower wages and weaker growth. If you want to know why some parts of the country feel ‘left behind’, start with education.

And when you think about the Brexit vote in the context of education, it makes perfect sense that a lot of people who didn’t do A-levels and a degree voted to rip up the UK’s economic and political settlement. I didn’t vote to leave and I fear leaving will produce outcomes worse than the ones that would have followed a vote to remain. But I think voting to leave was a perfectly rational choice for many people, and a choice that politics has to respect.

By that I don’t just mean leaving the EU. I think politics needs to better reflect the interests and concerns of that ‘other 50 per cent’, starting with education.

And here I see the possibly positive, and definitely interesting, prospect of politicians actually competing to do better for the people who do BTECs and apprenticeships instead of A-levels and degrees.

Angela Rayner, the sometimes-wonderful shadow education secretary understands this stuff instinctively and has been shouting about FE (further education) funding for some time, though Labour’s regressive promise of free university tuition for all (a massive middle-class handout) inevitably gets far more attention.

It’s on the Tory side that things get really interesting. Some Tories (Rob Halfon, Nick Timothy) understood this stuff long ago, but policy and delivery still fell short: see the FE budget, for instance.

Could the Boris Johnson government do better? It would make sense for an administration trying to unite Leave voters under the Tory banner to make a big push on non-graduates, their education and employment and values. It was notable that Johnson spoke about FE and apprenticeships more than once during his leadership campaign.

Equally notable is that Gavin Williamson, the new education secretary says FE is one of his top priorities and that he’s taking personal charge of his department’s work on FE and skills. Hopefully he’ll be able to persuade Sajid Javid to pluck some more cash for FE from the magic money tree that recently sprouted in the Treasury courtyard. The Chancellor actually attended an FE college so who better to address its needs today? On the other hand, perhaps the PM should want to own this one: Boris Johnson, Eton scholar and Oxford classicist playing saviour to FE colleges in the north is a better story, after all.

One early decision for the new administration in Williamson’s portfolio could have quite serious political implications, though because it relates to vocational education, it’s been almost entirely overlooked by most in Westminster. The Government is thinking about scrapping BTECs. The rationale is that from September 2020, children who want to do technical qualifications will take T-levels, intended as the technical counterpart to academic A-levels. Whether T-levels will work and will be better and more respected than BTECs is a question for another day.

Most immediately, it’s surprising that more Tories haven’t joined the dots between the possible abolition of BTECs and the Johnson government’s political strategy and spotted a potential challenge. And that short-term challenge, in the words of one education-minded Tory, is this:

How the hell are we going to win the votes we need in places like Bishop Auckland and Ashfield when we’re about to scrap the qualifications that are taken by the voters we need there and taken by their kids?

I don’t know the answer to that and happily it’s not my job to answer it. But I think it’s an interesting question and one that I’d hope more people around the graduate-dominated village of SW1A would give some thought to. Westminster’s collective neglect of half the people in our education system has been hugely harmful and needs to end, soon.

The trick, of course, will be setting out a political platform for non-graduates that does not repel graduates and their values. A Tory party intent on fighting a culture war on university-educated urban and suburban voters will deliver neither a sustainable majority nor a united country. In policy terms, the aim should be to properly fund and value FE and technical routes while maintaining our world-leading university sector. Both are essential to the productivity growth that is the only long-term route to growth.

Will that be easy? Of course not. It will be slow, complicated and quite boring. But someone needs to do it. Because that other 50 per cent, the half of the country who don’t go to university, might not have a stake in A-level results day but they do have votes. They used those votes to propel Britain out of the European Union and it seems unlikely that anyone will win – or deserve – a majority in Brexit Britain without paying a lot more attention to them and their interests.

Declaration: the Social Market Foundation’s research on BTECs and university entry was sponsored by Pearson, the company that runs the BTEC scheme. We retain full editorial independence and have no continuing relationship with Pearson


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