BTECs: Our Role in Supporting BTEC Progression and Their Value in Improving Social Mobility

In preparation for our third Linking London BTEC Practitioner Group meeting later this month I have been putting the finishing touches to a guide for HE Admissions staff to support them to make informed and fair offers to BTEC applicants, which will shortly be available for partners.

With the launch of the review of post-16 qualifications at level 3 and below and the consultation underway, there has been much concern raised in the sector as to what the future holds, if any, for applied general qualifications, of which BTECs form the most significant number. This led me to reflect on our work here at Linking London to support both college and university partners to improve the clarity and certainty of progression of these learners into and through higher education. We originally started out as a HEFCE funded lifelong learning network charged with the responsibility of helping to level the playing field between A levels and vocational qualifications, in particular BTECs, to improve the opportunities for progression from these qualifications. In addition to raising awareness of BTEC qualifications, we worked closely with partners to develop progression agreements between FECs and HEIs to identify suitable HE pathways from a number of BTEC subject areas. During our time as a lifelong learning network over 70 agreements were brokered. As important were the relationships that were formed between college and university staff to address misconceptions and open up channels for ongoing communication.

While working in FE in a previous role it was clear to me that one of the challenges for college learners, as well as advisers, was that HE admissions requirements for BTEC applicants were often unclear and in some cases lacked fairness in comparison with A levels. Linking London supported several HE partners with funding to review their entry requirements for BTEC applicants across their institution and provided guidance on where improvements needed to be made drawing on the recommendations of the Schwartz Report on Fair Admissions to Higher Education. We have continued to support partners in this work and undertake regular mapping of admissions requirements which has highlighted the improvements made by HEIs in London in terms of making fair and meaningful offers.  We have also, as well as setting up a BTEC Practitioner Group (which brings together our college and university partners including Pearson), produced a number of resources aimed at both learners and their advisers and HE outreach staff.

Previously, Linking London have commissioned London college leaver data reports undertaken by the University of Greenwich which over a period of 9 years has tracked over a quarter of a million London college leavers into and through HE. What the data shows is that the number of college learners studying BTECs as well as progressing onto HE has increased substantially in the past 10 years. During the period our reports covered, 2005-14 BTEC level 3 college learners increased from approximately 5000 to nearly 150,000. On average, students holding BTEC qualifications come from more disadvantaged backgrounds than their A level counterparts (HEPI, 2017). Focusing on London College learners, BTEC students applying to HE are even more likely to come from disadvantaged and BME backgrounds – 76% of the BTEC level 3 college cohort (2013-14) in London were classified as living in an area of educational disadvantage using the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI Q1 and Q2) and 64% of London college level 3 students in total were from BME backgrounds.

The increased number of BTEC learners entering HE has therefore played a significant role in widening access to and participation in HE over recent years.  While Applied General qualifications have come in for some criticism regarding their suitability in terms of preparation for and success in HE our research shows that the majority of BTEC learners that do progress achieve a HE qualification, albeit in lower numbers than their A level counterparts. This is in spite of the fact that BTEC learners are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and that HE curricula is in the main still geared toward A level learners.

Further, BTEC qualifications have recently been revised to better prepare learners for HE study, in part to address concerns raised by more selective institutions. While it’s early days it appears that some university courses that may not have previously accepted BTECs are prepared to offer places to students on the new BTEC level 3 qualifications, while others that previously may have asked for an additional A level in some instances have dropped this requirement. Interestingly, the fastest growing route into HE is those applicants with a BTEC/A level mix. HEIs seem particularly receptive to learners holding a mix of both vocational and academic qualifications – the best of both worlds you could argue, in the sense that these learners will be equipped with both academic as well as vocational skills and knowledge.

Here at Linking London, while we are committed to playing our part in helping to ensure that T levels in London are a success, we feel that their introduction shouldn’t be at the expense of BTECs.

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