Whose needs will the new TechBacc serve?

By Sarah Maughan

Monday 13 May 2013

The government has recently announced its plans to introduce a new TechBacc performance measure.  There must be virtually unanimous support among young people and stakeholders for such an idea, in particular I would expect this route to be appealing for young people who prefer and are more motivated by an applied learning route.  There are some valuable elements of the proposal, however, I also have some concerns about the detail, as well as the speed of its implementation.

In order to design something that will be effective, we need to have a clearly defined purpose – is the intention to raise the profile of vocational or applied learning, or is it to offer a viable alternative route for young people?  Which end users do we expect to be interested in the measure – employers, parents, young people?

Which young people is the new Bacc aimed at?

More than 50 per cent of young people in England will not go on to university and a more vocational or applied route may be appropriate for a large proportion of them.  In particular, many of those young people who are not currently succeeding in our education system may be the ones most in need of a TechBacc offer.  However, in the proposals, students would need to have achieved a level 2 in English and mathematics before starting qualifications leading to the TechBacc, and in addition there is the requirement to take a level 3 mathematics qualification as part of it.  Given that 40 per cent of young people do not achieve five good GCSEs including English and mathematics, and there is probably quite a lot of overlap between this group and the ones that aren’t motivated by the academic route, the numbers would suggest that the TechBacc as currently planned will be a ‘niche’ award.  Or it will reduce the number of students following the academic route rather than providing a realistic alternative to the ‘non-academic’ 40 per cent plus.  I would argue that the needs of many young people may best be met by a TechBacc award at level 2 as well as the level 3 option.

By setting the standards of the new TechBacc at a challenging level, the government recognises that it must be designed to be a valued alternative, not a route for those students who cannot cope with the academic route.  This meets the government’s laudable aims that there should be high expectations for all young people in our education system.  However, in its current format it does beg the question – what happens to the 40 per cent who do not get their level 2s?  Particularly given the fact that the standard of the GCSE is set to become more challenging.  I would suggest that thought needs to be given to which young people need an alternative to the academic route, and do the current proposals really meet their needs most effectively?

What can we learn from existing evidence about what might work?

The Diplomas were the last significant attempt to produce a realistic alternative offer to the academic route (admittedly as a qualification rather than as a performance measure).  NFER conducted an evaluation of their implementation.  Although there were significant issues with the manageability of the Diplomas, and they have now been withdrawn, there were some really valuable elements of them and lessons that do seem to be being picked up in the new proposals.

  • It is proposed that employers will be closely involved in the new ‘Occupational Qualifications’;
  • Qualifications similar to the principle learning from the Diplomas can count towards the TechBacc;
  • The extended project is to be a key component in the TechBacc.

However, there are other lessons that we should also bear in mind:

  • The inclusion of the English and mathematics elements as part of the Diplomas was considered to be of value, but for them to be accessible for many of the young people the content needed to be closely integrated into the course of study, it also needed to use examples relevant to the content of the course.  This gave a sense of purpose to the learning.  The inclusion of ‘standard’ GCSEs may not meet these requirements.
  • Another relevant finding from the evaluation of the Diplomas related to the speed of their introduction.  Significant time is needed in the introduction of new systems, to allow stakeholders and potential users to develop an understanding of their value.

NFER’s Research Programme on From Education to Employment also provides valuable evidence when considering the needs of young people who may go down a TechBacc route.  Our research in this area has concentrated on young people who are at risk of disengaging from education.  These young people cover a large range of ability levels, but may well not be suited to an academic route.  Evidence from our research shows that approaches that may work in keeping these young people engaged include, among other things:

  • Employer engagement in a variety of forms, which may include work experience and mentoring programmes;
  • Providing the right kind of learning environment, leading to the right kind of qualifications.  The learning environments may focus on practical and applied learning, perhaps delivered in small groups, by a respected adult, and in an environment of mutual respect.

These needs may well be met by a TeccBach option.

Is the TechBacc a good idea?

I do think that there is a real need for an alternative to the very academic route currently being prioritised in schools due to the EBacc performance measure.  And the inclusion of a strong literacy and numeracy core as part of that seems to be universally supported.  At its best, a TechBacc could be used to raise the status of vocational or applied learning, and provide a valued option for the many young people who may not be engaged by an academic route.  There have been a number of attempts to improve the vocational offer, which have generally been unsuccessful.  We need to learn from these and introduce any new change carefully to ensure that it does have the positive impact that is needed, and that it does reflect an option that is valuable to the young people and the end users who could benefit from it.

When looking at the current proposals, I am still left wondering what we are doing to address the needs of the young people who are at risk of disengaging before 16.  A key element of this is likely to be the inclusion of a level 2 TechBacc, and more thought and time to plan this.