Colleagues may be aware the Government has recently held a consultation to review post-16 qualifications at Level 3 in England. This consultation proposed a new system of Level 3 qualifications creating a dual route based on A Levels and T Levels. Therefore, these proposals do not see a separate role for BTEC qualifications, which at present offer learners a route into either higher education, higher-level technical qualifications or employment. Over the course of the past three years, we have worked closely with Pearson to support BTEC students and will continue to do so, as we feel vocational learners are integral to a healthy higher education sector, reflective of our society as a whole.
The beginnings of the Group
Our Group is one of a number of Working Groups co-ordinated by NEON. NEON is a professional organisation supporting those involved in widening access to higher education.
The ‘Supporting BTEC Students’ Working Group was formed in 2018, following a successful initial conference hosted that summer by Brunel University. The conference sought to explore issues around the progression, retention and success of students accessing HE via the BTEC pathway. At our first meeting in September 2018, we invited guest speakers from Association of Colleges, Pearson and UCAS, who gave contrasting views on the post-16 qualifications landscape in England and the role of the BTEC qualification within this.
The last decade has seen an increase in the number of learners progressing to higher education having studied a BTEC qualification. One in four students currently gaining access to HE have taken a BTEC National, about 100,000 students. There is a clear correlation between students studying BTEC qualifications and socio-economic status; research undertaken in 2016 by the Social Market Foundation showed 47% of students entering higher education from the most disadvantaged areas (Q1) are BTEC holders.
As a Group, we wanted to work to support the access, progression and success of BTEC students. Over the course of the past two years, we have refined our focus to developing our Guiding Principles publication, written for colleagues working with BTEC students at each stage of the student lifecycle.
Our Guiding Principles
Following our first meeting, we developed some terms of reference for the Group. Our initial thinking was to develop resources to support teachers and advisors for student progression and to capture the scope of activity taking place to support BTEC learners at each point of the student lifecycle. We are still compiling this information and so if you have an example of practice you would like to share, please let us know!
As the group evolved, we decided to focus on our meetings as opportunities to share practice with invited guest speakers and have used this knowledge to shape our Guiding Principles. A PDF copy of our report is available via
Abstracts of each of these principles are provided below:
- Championing fair higher education admissions practices for BTEC learners – Dr Alex Blower (University of Portsmouth)
One of the guiding tenets of the NEON Supporting BTEC Students Working Group is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information about course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK. The Group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK HE providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.
- Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC learners in schools and colleges – Rebecca Foster (University of East Anglia)
One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering HE is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with students’ pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners. This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds. Therefore an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a widening participation perspective. Through raising awareness of the important but sometimes nuanced differences between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.
- Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students in higher education – Rebecca Sykes (University of Leeds)
Research shows that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort. Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond. Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges.
- Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research – Chris Bayes (Lancaster University)
There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation. With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university. Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE. By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.
Next steps and the future of the Group
We obviously await the results of the recent governmental consultation with interest and we will continue to work closely with Pearson to lobby to safeguard the BTEC qualification’s future. It is clear that the government are keen to implement T Levels in order to provide learners with “a rigorous, stretching programme of study at level 3 based on recognised, employer-led standards”.
As a WP practitioner of over a decade’s experience, I am concerned by this development on a number of levels. Firstly, during the past decade, we have seen increasing influence of employers on education, through the academisation of many state schools. Assessing the impact of this initiative in terms of raising academic standards, a 2017 Education Policy Institute (EPI) study, produced in partnership with the London School of Economics (LSE) stated that “academies do not provide an automatic solution to school improvement” as one of its principal findings. Even Schools Minister Nick Gibb has previously conceded that: “This government does not believe that all academies and free schools are necessarily better than maintained schools.”
A secondary concern is how the government’s proposals to introduce T Levels is portrayed as part of a renewed emphasis on vocational routes into higher learning and addressing perceived gaps in technical skills areas. This in itself should not be seen as problematic, but as NEON’s Director Dr Graeme Atherton states in his foreword to our publication:
“This commitment to strengthening vocational routes should be supported, but it is vital that they build on what exists. BTECs offer a proven route into higher education for many learners.”
By removing BTECs from this proposed future qualifications landscape, the people most likely to adversely affected by the government’s proposals are learners. As Cindy Rampersaud (Senior Vice President, Pearson BTEC and Apprenticeships) states
“BTEC qualifications have changed the lives and career prospects of so many; it’s important not to lose sight of what is already working well as these reforms are introduced.”
My third and final concern about the proposal is that I feel we are in danger of committing what Nigel Kettley in his 2007 paper ‘The past, present and future of Widening Participation Research’ describes as “a collective act of forgetfulness with respect to earlier contributions”, which leads to replication of “the mistakes of the past”. From my experience, this is not confined to research, as many of the lessons learnt from Aimhigher were seemingly forgotten in the development and set up of HEFCE’s NNCO and NCOP programmes. We are once again in danger of replicating previous mistakes concerning vocational education such as the previous New Labour administration’s introduction of the 14-19 Diploma, which sought to cross the age-old divide between academic and vocational qualifications. After much fanfare and a great deal of investment, the Diploma was ultimately the victim of a change in the political winds and again, those who suffered were the learners.
We will continue to work with Pearson to lobby to preserve the BTEC qualification. If you are interested in the Group and our work, please get in touch via firstname.lastname@example.org or join us at our next meeting which is being held online (via Zoom) on Friday 26th March at 1 pm.
Blog by Chris Bayes
Photo by Youssef Naddam