HL Deb 20 December 1990 vol 524 cc912-4

11.14 a.m.

Baroness Platt of Writtle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What proportion of first-year students enrolled on polytechnic and college degree courses in engineering and construction have BTEC qualifications.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the latest available data from November 1989 show that 31 per cent. of first year students enrolled in English polytechnics and colleges on engineering and construction degree courses had BTEC qualifications. Almost one in 10 students entering all degree courses do so via the BTEC route.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that most encouraging reply. I hope that the figures will continue to rise. Will she do all she can to ensure that the DES encourages schools to run BTEC first courses and nationals so that those young people who are not attracted by academic courses and who may be ambitious can take up these excellent pre-degree qualifications which are both broad based and vocationally oriented? That will enable them to enter further and higher education in the future and further swell the numbers.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am pleased that my honourable friend the Minister of State for Education and Science announced last Thursday the introduction of BTEC first courses in schools. Of course there are no bars to schools offering BTEC diplomas at present. Our hope is that more schools will take advantage of it. As I am sure my noble friend will agree, it is important that these technical courses should have parity of esteem with the many educational subjects that parallel them.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, could my noble friend inform those of us who do not know what a BTEC is?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, they are business and educational courses. They involve business studies, administration and much of the technical and basic pre-vocational engineering courses.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, can the Minister say what the Government intend to do not just to encourage schools to run the courses but higher education institutions, including the universities, to accept students with these qualifications? While perhaps encouraging, the figure of one in 10 is still a tiny proportion of all those entering degree level courses. Can the Minister say what the Government intend to do to increase the figure?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, as the BTEC first courses come in the curriculum in schools we hope that the higher education institutions will do much more to accept these young people. I said that we wanted parity of esteem for the courses. We find that in the polytechnic sector much more has been done than in the university sector. We hope that the latter will take up the courses. As foundation courses for business and finance, engineering, design, construction, science and the distribution industries such as the hotel and catering and leisure industries, computing and agriculture, they are fine first pre-vocational courses. We hope that the universities will be much more enlightened in their admission policies.

Baroness David

My Lords, does the Minister think that it would be a good idea to get rid of school regulations altogether? Then there would be no question of whether or not people in schools and sixth form colleges could take courses such as BTEC which provide another avenue for entrance to higher education.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the answer is no. If all the regulations were abolished we should lose the important framework of the national curriculum. We do not wish to see the new courses excluding or precluding the foundation courses of English, maths, history, modern languages and so on. The technical courses ought to be part of the flexibility that will be introduced in post-14 and certainly 16-plus education. It is important that the best of the framework of the national curriculum is retained but there should be flexibility for young people to choose to go down the engineering and the more technical route.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it is very important never to distinguish between the intellectual and those who use their hands? There is a great danger in that respect. We must never separate them. You have to be just as intelligent to take any of these courses as you do to take the classics. Will the Minister also accept that a group like the Engineering Council, which does absolutely sterling work for women, should be encouraged to make more visits to schools and talk to the girls about careers which they would enjoy?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I am happy to join the noble Baroness in paying tribute to the Engineering Council. It has done much work in promoting engineering courses for women. However, I should say again that we believe parity of esteem for these subjects to be very important. For too long the idea has prevailed that going into engineering is somehow a second-class profession when compared with other professions such as law, accountancy and so on. We believe that they are all very important and that the manufacturing base in this country is also exceedingly important.

Lord Peston

My Lords, will the Minister clarify two matters? First, surely I am right in saying that BTEC is not about using one's hands; it is about approaching things in a practical way. That is a more sensible way of describing it. Secondly, can the noble Baroness further clarify her answer to the question put by my noble friend Lady David? Is she saying that there a re no restrictions within the school regulations which prevent schools using BTEC in any way that they like? I understood that there were still problems about introducing BTEC into our schools. It may well be that the department is doing something about the matter, but I believe that there are problems at present.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, the first formal step is to introduce BTEC initially at 16-plus. It becomes an option at 16-plus. Active consideration is being given to formally introducing BTEC courses that would dovetail with the national curriculum at 14-plus so that there is more technical vocational education taking place. I am sorry if I keep using acronyms but if, through the introduction of TVEI, the prevocational course, the CPVE, which is now to he overseen by City and Guilds and further developed and improved, and also through the introduction of BTEC and Royal Society of Arts courses and City and Guilds, flexibility can be achieved in order to retain the best of the national curriculum, our young people will be much better served.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, does the Minister agree that we will never attain parity of esteem for BTEC while Ministers keep referring to A-levels as the gold standard?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, Ministers from the Dispatch Box have claimed that A-levels are very important. The standard of A-levels is sacrosanct. However, that does not mean to say that BTEC is not important and that it should not be at a standard which is acceptable to our young people.