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16-19 Learners: Time to Stop Pigeon-Holing and Start Listening

Liz Gregory

It’s been a busy few years for the FE sector; in fact, I cannot recall a time of greater change during my professional career. Funding cuts have become commonplace in many areas of education, but on top of these there have been substantial changes to the two most popular academic pathways for level three learners, with A-Levels returning to a linear structure and significant amendments to BTEC assessments. Add to this the raising of the school leaving age to 18 for learners born on or after 1st September 1997, and you’ve got a pretty confusing picture for a number of those young people caught up in the heart of changes that are beyond their control.

My ongoing doctoral research at an FE college in the north of England raises serious questions about the advice being given to today’s sixteen-year-olds by external agencies, with heavily biased messages on the value of particular academic pathways and their suitability transmitted by teachers, parents, educational institutions, the government and the popular press. Under the current system, there are three main educational routes available to 16-19 year-olds who wish to study at level three: traditionally “academic” qualifications such as A-Levels, vocational qualifications such as BTECs, and apprenticeships – although numbers for the third of these pathways are likely to remain low for this age group despite the Conservative government’s pledge to create three million new opportunities.

for many learners their choices are being made for them, thereby merely presenting them with the illusion of choice rather than the actuality

However, whilst the status of vocational qualifications is changing, with a recent survey by CBI/Pearson indicating that more than a third of employers value vocational and academic qualifications equally and with more learners than ever before entering Higher Education with vocational qualifications, this shift in attitude does not appear to be reflected in the advice being given to young people making their academic choices. Indeed, my research suggests that for many learners their choices are being made for them, thereby merely presenting them with the illusion of choice rather than the actuality. Twenty four students – 12 A-Level and 12 BTEC – took part in individual interviews in which they were invited to narrate their experiences of the academic transition process, focusing particularly on their motivations for selecting their chosen course and their expectations of the programme of study they had elected to follow.

It is clearly beyond the scope of a short piece such as this to report on my full findings; indeed, data analysis is still taking place. However, certain pictures are emerging with great clarity. The learners perceived as more academic are being identified whilst still at school and encouraged to follow the A-Level pathway, based on their predicted ability to achieve high grades in their GCSEs rather than any sense of it being suitable for them as an individual: “my school careers advisor said A-Levels were better if you wanted unis to look at you”…”my teachers assumed I’d do A-Levels next as they said I was a really bright girl”…”my boss at work said BTECs weren’t as clever and that I’d be wasted on them”.

the learners themselves are aware of a clear divide between perceptions of academic and vocational qualifications

Comments such as these, along with the Department for Education’s assertion in 2014 that “new A levels will be linear qualifications that make sure that students develop the skills and knowledge needed for progression to undergraduate study” (p.6) and the annual media scrummage to photograph high-fliers clutching their hauls of A-starred A-Levels, seem destined to reproduce patterns of advantage and disadvantage – the learners themselves are aware of a clear divide between perceptions of academic and vocational qualifications and are re-enacting this in their own narratives: “I preferred to do A-Levels as I’ve always been academic”…”my parents told me I should do A-Levels because I could”…”there’s nothing wrong with doing a BTEC although they’re seen as not as good”…”BTECs are a bit of a cop-out”.

With increased pressure on colleges to attract and retain learners to avoid adverse funding implications, it becomes more important than ever to consider the messages being sent to young people embarking upon a vital stage of their education, particularly now structural changes to qualifications mean that learners are essentially committing themselves to a two-year programme. Level three study is the key stepping stone for many learners to undergraduate study or to a fulfilling and appropriate career, and yet it appears that we are failing to acknowledge the vast range of individual identities, talents and aspirations amongst these young people. The sooner we stop pigeon-holing and start listening, the better.