Do plans to scrap BTECs and bolster Latin showcase elitist egotism at its finest?

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A letter written to the Education Secretary Gavin Williamson which embodies the views of 12 organisations representing schools, colleges, and universities, has criticised the Department of Education’s decision to stop funding most BTEC courses and many other applied general qualifications by 2025.

This decision has come not long before a separate announcement detailing a new £4 million initiative which aims to bolster entries for GCSE Latin within state schools. This is ostensibly an attempt to combat knowledge disparities between private and state school students. 

I can visualise the train of thought. Pushing Latin at GCSE will foster an uptick in intellectual curiosity among more ‘disadvantaged’ students, who will consequently progress into higher education and pursue better-paid careers with greater ‘intellectual merit’. It will also give Gavin Williamson something to say on telly when we ask him, in despair, what he is doing about the gaping chasms that perpetually lie between the private and the state sectors; yet again highlighted with the release of this year’s A-Level results.

The gaping chasms that perpetually lie between the private and the state sectors

But something doesn’t quite fit, if the government’s overreaching aim is to bolster equal opportunity, then why scrap the BTEC? Why place GCSE Latin above well-established qualifications with proven track records of being, as the letter claims, “engines of social mobility”?

The Department of Education’s argument is that the new, recently introduced ‘T-Levels’ make most BTECs effectively obsolete. These replacement vocational qualifications, equivalent to taking 3 A-Levels, have been more closely tailored to specific professional sectors and will ensure that employers receive the skills they need from students choosing to enter the workforce at 16.

What the government is failing to realise (or choosing to ignore) is that 44% of white working-class students, and 48% of black British students at university “have at least one” BTEC qualification according to research from the Social Market Foundation cited in the letter to the Education Secretary.

Crucially, BTECs keep opportunities open for those students who aren’t immediately sure of their career paths

Crucially, BTECs keep opportunities open for those students who aren’t immediately sure of their career paths and cannot or choose not to do A-Levels. Abandoning them in favour of “untried and untested” T-Levels, as the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton argues, whilst pumping funding into GCSE Latin seems ludicrous.

If the government was truly committed to fostering opportunities for disadvantaged students, they would keep BTECs and introduce Latin. Unfortunately, the idea that the latter alone can significantly close the privilege gap paints a distasteful picture of elitist egotism. With an Oxford classicist for a Prime Minister, of course, the government backs a multi-million-pound GCSE Latin initiative.

Learning the language of the elite is not going to make poverty, malnutrition or institutional racism go away. Spotlighting ‘cultural capital’ at the expense of more deeply rooted social and economic issues facing disadvantaged students today only makes the government’s detachment from its young people more obvious.

I have to admit, it would be ignorant to deny that gaining an understanding of Latin enriches the way in which you view the world and its history. It pops up in science textbooks as well as being the gateway to deciphering legendary ancient texts. As one of the few state school students who was lucky enough to have been offered both GCSE and A-Level Classics, but with no access to Latin, I know first-hand the difference it could have made to my appreciation of the subject.

But we’ve all sat in a lesson and heard a disgruntled ‘when will I ever need this?’ muttered from the other side of the classroom. Convincing a whole generation of 21st-century teenagers that Latin will make a resounding difference to their lives and opportunities will be no mean feat, because, for most of them, it probably won’t be useful.

The Department of Education’s messaging to state school students seems paradoxical and confusing

Overall, the Department of Education’s messaging to state school students seems paradoxical and confusing, stressing the importance of “high-quality” vocational qualifications via the introduction of T-Levels on one hand, whilst stressing the value of traditional academia and cultural capital via a GCSE Latin initiative on the other.

BTECs are a solid in-between, allowing hesitant students to progress with their education whilst still figuring things out.

The 12 academic bodies who contributed to that letter to the Education Secretary emphasised the importance of freedom of choice for young people at such critical stages in their lives. If the government could realise this too, perhaps we could truly believe in their wider claim to be closing the gap and equalising educational opportunity.

Image: Gabriella Clare Marino via Unsplash

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