Family & Education

BTec Nationals: Who are the students who didn't just do A-levels?

Two student mechanics repairing car Image copyright Getty Images

The summer ritual of A-level results day is so well known it's easy to forget the thousands of students receiving their BTec National results.

So, who is studying for the qualification and why do they take what is often seen as an alternative to A-levels?

Who takes BTecs and why?

Provisional figures suggest just under 250,000 students completed BTec Nationals in 2019, compared with about 300,000 who sat A-levels in 2018.

BTec Nationals can be sat by any age group - in fact, most are taken by those over the age of 22, as they develop practical skills for their careers.

The most popular subjects in 2019 were business, sport and health and social care.

About 20% of university students in England are accepted after studying only BTec Nationals. Another 10% are accepted into higher education with a combination of A-levels and BTecs.

Midlands and northern students use Btecs for university the most

% of acceptances by region and qualification, 2016

Source: Social Market Foundation data looks at A-Levels and Btecs which represent 80% of qualifications

BTec Nationals are particularly popular among white working-class students, according to research by the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank.

In 2016, 31% of this group who were accepted into higher education had studied just Btec Nationals.

Students from ethnic-minority backgrounds are also more likely to have these qualifications, including 37% of black students.

Minority groups use Btecs more to enter university

% of acceptances by ethnicity and qualification, 2016

Source: Social Market Foundation data looks at A-Levels and Btecs which represent 80% of qualifications

For many of these students, this will be because their BTec performance was more successful than it was for GCSEs, says Eddie Playfair of the Association of Colleges, which represents institutions teaching BTecs.

"Sixteen-year-olds from these groups are proportionately less likely to have the necessary GCSE grades to move straight on to an A-level programme and are more likely to be following a vocational or technical programme with lower entry requirements post-16," he says.

"Many of these students will be successful and progress to higher education or employment after their college studies."

What BTec subjects are there?

Studied over one or two years, there are more than 2,000 different courses. These provide practical experience of everything from aeronautical engineering to hairdressing and forensic investigation.

BTecs are awarded by a private organisation, the education and training company Pearson. While England, Wales and Northern Ireland have BTecs, Scotland has its own Scottish Vocational Qualifications.

How do BTecs compare with other qualifications?

Across all BTecs, students can get everything from pre-GSCE level qualifications to the equivalent of a postgraduate degree.

Image copyright PA Media

And in addition to those studying towards Btec Nationals, thousands more are studying towards other levels.

Btec Firsts are equivalent to GCSEs, while Btec Higher Nationals are equivalent to the first year, or the first two years, of an undergraduate degree.

Btec Apprenticeships span 25 different sectors, with classroom-based and on-the-job training.

Results for the Btec Firsts are published on 21 August 2019.

What about other vocational qualifications?

According to Ofqual, there are currently more than 12,000 vocational qualifications at all levels, offered by more than 150 awarding organisations.

Beyond BTec, other organisations, such as City and Guilds and the OCR (Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations), also offer vocational qualifications.

And students can have a wide range of courses in a single subject from which to choose. There are currently 34 qualifications alone for those aiming for a career in plumbing.

However, in July 2016 former Prime Minister Theresa May announced plans to slash the number of courses available.

Image copyright Getty Images

It said this would help avoid confusion for students and employers and to redress what it considered to be an imbalance between post-16 technical and academic qualifications.

So, the autumn of 2020 will see the introduction of a new qualification, the Technical or T-level.

These new two-year courses will follow on from GCSEs and be equivalent to three A-levels.

The government says T-levels will offer students "a mixture of classroom learning and 'on-the-job' experience".

Ministers have been consulting on withdrawing money from qualifications that may overlap with T-levels.

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