The Ultimate Guide To The Different BTEC Levels

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When looking at the next steps in your educatory future, at any age or level, it’s important to explore all your options. One of the qualifications available to all students from GCSE age to degree level is the BTEC. There are thousands of BTECs available to take in all different subject areas at various levels, which can become extremely confusing. As there are so many options available, you should discover as much about the different levels and what they mean as possible.

For more information about the various BTEC levels on offer, who each of these is designed for and how you can study them, keep reading.

How many different BTEC levels are there?

BTECs are a form of qualification in the UK. Students can study for them to obtain the grades needed to progress further in either their education or their career. BTECs are available across the UK for most students depending which school or college you attend. For more information on what BTEC qualifications are see this Think Student guide on how BTECs are graded.

Click here to read an article taken from the UCAS website explaining what a BTEC diploma is, providing some detail on the different types.

However, BTECs do not come in one form at one level as with GCSEs and A-Levels. There are two main levels which BTECs can be taken at, known as Specialist and Professional. This article from Pearson explains the concept further.

Specialist qualifications are designed for school students and range from Levels 1-3. Professional BTECs, on the other hand, are for university students looking to boost their employability and range from Levels 4-7.

Within these categories, there are yet more types of qualification. Specialist BTECs can be split into Firsts and Nationals, and these are the most common of BTEC qualifications. Professional BTECs are encompassed by the term “Higher Nationals” but can be taken at several different levels within the label.

What is a First Level BTEC equivalent to?

BTEC firsts are equivalent to either Level 1 or Level 2 qualifications, depending on the course you choose. This should be specified before beginning your programme of study and if it’s not, then it’s advisable that you either ask your teacher or research this beforehand.

Both Levels 1 and 2 qualifications are GCSE standard, with Level 1 covering lower grades and Level 2 representing the top-end grades. Each BTEC First Diploma is equivalent to 4 GCSEs, the level of which is dependent on your BTEC grade.

As a BTEC at this level is only of GCSE standard, unfortunately, it does not come with any UCAS points. These can only be obtained via A-Level (Level 3) or equivalent exams and extra-curricular activities of a high standard.

For more tips and ideas of how to earn extra UCAS points from Think Student, as well as some general information regarding the point of earning points, click here.

How is a First Level BTEC structured?

There are two types of First Level BTEC, each with different structures. As a student, you can either choose to take a subject as a certificate, each equivalent to one GCSE, or a BTEC First Diploma. The recommended time for study in person with a teacher is 180 hours per BTEC subject, or 360 hours for the diploma.

With this amount of teaching, First Level BTECs are generally completed in a single year. However, it may take longer if the qualifications are being studied part time.

The course is structured so that the same modules are covered in both the certificate and diploma awards, but more optional topics are introduced in the larger qualifications. Usually, as part of the certificate, learners must study both core units and three of the eight “sector” units, designed to link theory to the real world.

For the diploma, the same principle applies. However, students must study four core units alongside six out of eight of the optional “sector” topics. For a taste of how this structure works, view this specification for the Level 1 Sport BTEC from Pearson.

Who is a First Level BTEC aimed at?

First Level BTECs were mainly designed for school leavers who need another qualification to steer them towards their chosen career path. They are a general introduction to the given subject and should be taken as a platform to move onto further education.

Whilst it is strongly recommended that all Year 10 and 11 students take GCSEs, it is possible for BTEC Firsts to be studied from age 14 onwards. If at all, it’s advisable that pupils of this age take the BTECs alongside other GCSE subjects, as they provide the best chance of moving forward in education.

As most students either take GCSEs or BTECs at a higher level, the institutions offering the qualifications are few and far between. There are several adult learning centres and colleges offering BTEC firsts which can be found via a simple internet search.

There are very few secondary schools promoting BTEC at this level, and so it may be more difficult to find an education provider.

What is a National Level BTEC?

National Level BTECs are the second-tier qualifications in the UK. They are equivalent to a Level 3 UK qualifications, which also includes A-Levels, Apprenticeships and T-Levels. All of these qualifications are classified under the term “further education”. For more information about what further education is from Think Student, click here.

As National Level BTECs are of a higher standard and difficulty than BTEC Firsts, you will be awarded UCAS points alongside the qualification. The number of points you receive is based on the grades you are awarded, as with A-Levels.

BTEC grades work slightly differently to A-Levels in that you can earn between a distinction* and low pass rather than the regular grades A*-E. However, the UCAS points earnt line up between the two qualifications.

This means that both an A* and a Distinction* award the same number of points. You can read this article from Leicester College listing how UCAS points are allocated or click here to discover more about the BTEC grading system itself from Think Student.

How is a National Level BTEC structured?

As with First Level, BTEC Nationals can be taken in several different formats. Within the “Nationals” category, it is possible to take an Extended Certificate, Diploma or Extended Diploma in your chosen subject.  All these count as Level 3 qualifications and are part of further education, but some carry more weight than others.

The Extended Certificate is equivalent to one A-Level, and as with BTEC Firsts, is structured into units. There are three mandatory units, and the school or college will choose an optional unit to teach alongside this.

For a Diploma, which is equivalent to two A-Levels, the units are the same, but students are required to learn more topics. At this level, you will study six mandatory units and are given two optional ones.

As the biggest of the three qualifications, carrying the weight of three GCE A-Levels, the Extended National Diploma contains a total of 13 topics. These are split into seven mandatory units and five optional units for the teacher to choose from.

Pearson, the exam board, suggests an allotted time that students should in face-to-face learning for each programme. For the Extended Certificate, this is 360 hours, for the Diploma it is 720 hours, and the Extended Diploma asks for 1080 hours teaching time.

It is then expected that you also continue to work independently as well outside lessons. Click here to read the National BTEC Business Specification from Pearson, detailing the time it takes to complete each qualification and more about the allocation of grades.

Where can you study a National Level BTEC?

BTEC Nationals are designed for anyone aged 16 and over. Most commonly, they are taken by teenagers in further education. However, it is not uncommon to see adult learners taking National Level BTECs if they were unsuccessful in obtaining Level 3 qualifications whilst at school.

Seeing as they are far more common than BTEC firsts, they can be taken at most sixth form colleges across the UK and are available in many schools as well. The only difference is that schools rarely teach Diplomas or Extended Diplomas.

This is because the Extended Certificate is equivalent to a single A-Level, as mentioned before. When timetabling an entire school of children with lower years as well, it becomes far less complex if every subject requires the same amount of teaching time.

In both schools and colleges, they will encourage you to take a mixture of qualifications, both A-Levels and BTECs. By taking either Extended Certificate or Diploma BTECs, you can take at least one other subject, BTEC or not.

Not only does this broaden your learning, but it will make you more employable in the future as you pick up different skills and knowledge in several sectors. It is also advised to take at least one or two A-Levels if you plan on applying to university in the future. Click here to read the Think Student article on whether universities consider BTECs to be suitable preparation for further education.

Whilst some universities are happy to take students with just BTECs, it can sometimes be difficult to compete against students with A-Levels for a place at top level universities. This Think Student article provides further detail on which Russell Group Universities accept BTEC students.

What is a Higher National Level BTEC equivalent to?

Higher National BTECs are quite varied and range from Levels 4-7. All of these are part of higher education, and so the content is of a degree-level standard. However, Levels 4 and 5 represents the first and second years of university respectively.

A Level 6 qualification is equivalent to an entire undergraduate degree whilst a Level 7 is of the same standing as a master’s degree. For further clarification on what higher education includes, you can read this Think Student article.

How is a Higher National Level BTEC structured?

As universities write their own courses, there are no set modules or units as with specialist qualifications. Each subject consists entirely of the work your teachers have chosen to set you, so the structure of a Higher National BTEC will vary from school to school.

Higher National BTECs can be taken at four separate levels, each structured differently. A Higher National Certificate is the equivalent of Level 4 and takes a single year to complete. On completion, the qualification is worth 120 credits towards a degree.

On the other hand, Higher National Diplomas are of the same standing as Level 5 qualifications, or the first two years of university. As it takes double the time to complete, the diploma earns double credits a certificate would, at 240.

Click here to view the Pearson page containing links to the guidance specification, example assessments and schemes of work for both Higher National Certificate and Diploma BTECs in Engineering.

Where it can become more complex is in the Level 6 and 7 qualifications. As of 2020, Level 6 and 7 BTECs still exist and can be taken in order to earn either bachelor’s or master’s Degrees. However, as of summer 2023, the qualifications will no longer exist, and so, they are technically not part of Higher Nationals.

For students who take Level 6 and 7s, the structure is very similar to that of Level 4 and 5 Higher Nationals. However, the material is more complex and there are three or four years’ worth of topics to cover.

Where can you study a Higher National Level BTEC?

Higher National BTECs can mainly be studied at universities and some higher education colleges for adult learners. They can be taken by anyone who has the prior qualifications to be accepted onto a course (usually a set of level 3 grades).

Usually, this is post-18 students who have just finished taking BTECs at sixth form college or school. However, there are plenty of adults who have returned to education after wanting a change in their career paths.

This Think Student article describes the possibilities for people of different ages when it comes to university.

Higher Nationals are perfect for anyone who doesn’t intend on obtaining a full degree but would like to earn some higher-level qualifications to increase their employability. Lots of universities who teach Higher National BTECs will allow students to take a third and fourth year on an actual university course.

This means that even if you take a Certificate or Diploma BTEC at university, there is still the possibility to earn a full degree depending on the credits you have earned in the first two years.

Which subjects can you study BTECs in?

In the UK, there are over 2000 different BTEC qualifications available to study in all different subject areas. The most BTECs are in areas which are directly related to a certain career rather than being broad subjects covering lots of topics.

This is because the structure of BTECs allow lots of coursework-based assessments and group projects to boost skills relevant to the workplace. This is where A-Levels and BTECs differ, as there is less fact-based learning and more application of theory to the real world.

The most popular BTEC subjects in the UK are in areas such as Sport, Business, Engineering and Fashion. They are usually subjects which are very specific and cannot be taken as A-Levels. Subjects like English and History are much less common as BTECs because they involve lots of independent work and academic research.

You can take most subjects at all levels. It’s only subjects which contain content too difficult for GCSE-age students, such as Aerospace Engineering, that they can’t be taken as BTEC Firsts. For a full list of the subject areas BTECs are available in, click here and view the Pearson website.

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