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BTEC: why it’s important to Universities, Employers, Students…and Pearson too

  • 18 November 2016
  • By Rod Bristow

This guest blog has been kindly provided by Rod Bristow, President, Core Markets for Pearson.

A College to Career Pathway for Students in Britain and the World 

This week, we are publishing the annual data for nearly three-quarters of a million BTEC qualifications taken in the past academic year. The numbers capture the detail of which courses students are choosing and how they have performed: last year, for instance, saw a welcome increase in the numbers completing Level 3 (A-Level equivalent) qualifications in Engineering, Construction and Applied Science. But it’s also worth reflecting on the bigger picture – the value of BTEC in opening up opportunity and meeting the needs of employers and universities.

In FE colleges, schools and universities across the world, hundreds of thousands of students take BTEC qualifications. They do so because a BTEC gets you places. A BTEC National Diploma gets you directly into a career, or alternatively into university and then into a career; for those already at college or university, a BTEC Higher National Diploma is the stepping stone to a full degree or again, directly into that career.

It was a BTEC that got Kirsty where she wanted to be.

Kirsty graduated from the University of Durham in 2016 with a First Class Honours Degree in Business and Management. Prior to university Kirsty studied a Level 3 BTEC National in Enterprise and Entrepreneurship for which she received a D*D*D*.  Whilst studying for her BTEC Kirsty also set up her own business, using her BTEC to ‘learn by doing’ as well as through theory.

Kirsty attended a great college, the Peter Jones Enterprise Academy – named after its founder, the successful businessman and dragon of BBC TV’s Dragons Den. Peter Jones is one of the many business leaders who back BTEC, saying that, ‘BTEC students have the skills that today’s employers are looking for’.

Not every BTEC student gets the top grades, or achieves a First from Durham, but Kirsty’s story highlights why BTEC matters to me, and why it matters to universities, to employers, and to Pearson. It says a lot about the aspiration and learning that BTEC enables. I am proud that there has been a significant growth in the numbers of BTEC students going to university and flourishing there.  And I am just as proud when employers like Peter Jones tell me they value what BTEC students offer. After all, the global economy doesn’t just value what people know; it values what they can do.

What’s more, BTEC students who go on to university are more likely than their A-Level counterparts to come from families in which parents have not historically gone to university. BTEC students are more representative of society as a whole, helping us make the most of the many talents we have in this country, to broaden horizons and enable social mobility.

The Bar is Rising

In the last few years, BTEC has been the fastest growing route to university with one-in-four students now enrolling doing so with a BTEC. Understandably, the growth of BTEC as a route to university and a career brings scrutiny and challenge, including from those who see a pure academic route as a sort of gold standard. Can BTECs really be as ‘good’, or as tough as A Levels?

I understand the importance of these questions. It is not only in the interests of the millions of people who have taken the BTEC path that BTEC continues to be highly respected; it is in our interest too. When I hear a critic speak, tweet or blog, it stings. But our response is not to simply defend, though defence is important. There is no qualification in the world immune to criticism and we need to listen and respond.

We look at the evidence and make improvements where necessary, and that includes raising the bar and increasing the rigour of the assessments both of which we have done as part of our World Class Qualifications development programme. In 2014 for example, we made substantial changes to tighten the rules on resubmission of work to ensure a level playing field for all students, raising the standards bar for BTEC compared with competing qualifications. It didn’t make us popular, but it did make BTEC better. And our new generation of BTEC launching this year includes assessments not only more sharply focused on the skills that really count, but marked fully independently of the institutions that deliver them.

BTEC has one thing in common with A-Level between 2000 and 2010; that we have seen more students achieving the top grades. We share some of the concerns about ‘grade inflation’. The work to address these concerns started three years ago.

With respect to A levels, concerted action eliminated grade inflation. We are also taking concerted action with respect to BTEC. In addition to the resubmission rule, our new generation of assessments will give us powerful levers with which to exercise better control. And the steps we have taken are having an impact. We are beginning to see grade increases slow significantly – this week’s data show increasing stability. We also need to acknowledge when there is legitimacy for rising grades. Today, students taking a BTEC are much more likely to have better GCSEs than was the case in years gone by. The level of prior qualifications of students going down the BTEC route is rising significantly, making year-on-year comparisons of BTEC grades difficult.

The Value of BTEC

I will also defend BTEC against criticism that is not based on evidence, but on unfounded assumptions, perhaps even prejudice, about the value of the skills that BTEC represents. Those critics who see career and professional qualifications as an affront to academic rigour, a betrayal of educational tradition, or somehow ‘second class’ do not do Britain’s economy, our society or young people, any favours. BTEC requires ‘deep knowledge’; the sort of knowledge that enables not just understanding, but also action. Matthew Crawford, the American philosopher who set up his own motorcycle repair business speaks eloquently in his book, The Case for Working with Your Hands, about how the days when the world was neatly divided into managers in offices making decisions and giving directions, and workers unthinkingly carrying them out, are long gone. Today’s economy needs practitioners who can think, and thinkers who can act. At its best, that is the combination that BTEC stands for.

The importance of that combination has also been recognised by universities, many of which today do not only provide the groves of academe but energetic workshops of engineering, design, technology, entrepreneurship and innovation. The demand for higher education is growing. The BTEC route is highly beneficial to students themselves: Many go directly into employment, but many decide to go to university before going into employment. And increasing numbers of students opt for a smart mix of A-Level and BTEC. The picket fence between academic and career and professional education is, slowly, piece-by-piece, being dismantled. Universities like Exeter, London Southbank and Huddersfield (along with most other universities) value BTEC students, 86% of whom go on to achieve a second class degree or better.

And what are the wage returns for BTEC students – whether they go to university or not? As Alison Wolf’s report from 2011 highlighted, there is a 13% wage premium for students who study BTEC Nationals at Level 3. A report from the Social Market Foundation this summer showed that graduates who had previously studied a BTEC earn 20% more than BTEC students who did not go on to HE. No wonder many BTEC students decide to go into their chosen career via the university route.

Other facts underline the value of technical, career and professional qualifications like BTEC: the recent analysis by the Social Market Foundation showed that those with a level 3 vocational qualification as their highest qualification are 15 percent more likely to be in work compared to those with level 2 qualifications only. Furthermore we know that students who enrol in higher education on the back of a BTEC are disproportionately likely to be boys and disproportionately likely to be from an ethnic minority background.

Just how tough is BTEC? Achieving a BTEC requires commitment and hard work. Indeed our new generation of BTEC has drawn on – and been inspired by – the best in the world. All units must be completed successfully and intensive revision before an exam won’t be enough. In 2015/16, 84.1% of students that started a BTEC National completed the course and achieved a pass and above. For A-Level, 98.1% achieved E (a pass) and above. That’s not to say that BTEC is tougher than A-Level; indeed comparisons are not just difficult, they can sometimes be unhelpful. So we try to avoid direct comparisons, but we do make sure that BTEC enables progression, is demanding, and the skills it represents are properly understood by universities and employers. That is why, five years ago, we started publishing BTEC data in the spirit of transparency.

We understand our duty to protect the integrity and value of BTEC. It’s important for us, but much more important for Kirsty and the thousands of students whose achievements are reflected in the results we are publishing this week.

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