The system of education in the UK is complex and uses a wide variety of terminology that can be difficult to make sense of. While many students are familiar with the more mainstream courses, such as A-Levels, there are a wide range of equally official qualifications that may suit certain students better. It is therefore important to research the possible education routes available before deciding on what course to study.
The abbreviation ‘BTEC’ stands for ‘Business and Technology Education Council’. Put simply, BTECs are vocational, practical courses that can be studied as a more hands-on alternative to traditional qualifications such as GCSEs and A-Levels. They offer a way to learn via practical experience in a chosen field, more centred around coursework than exams. These may be suited to students who prefer a more active learning style instead of the more theory-based approach of other popular qualifications.
There are many factors to consider before deciding to study BTECs – read on to learn more about what these qualifications involve, and whether they could be the right choice for you.
What subjects can you take as a BTEC?
There are a huge number of BTEC qualifications – over 2,000 qualifications across 16 sectors, which means that no matter what topic you would like to pursue, there is likely to be a BTEC that matches your interests. As BTECs are vocational, hands-on courses, many people expect there to be courses in sectors such as construction or performing arts – and while there are indeed many courses in these areas, they only form a small part of BTEC qualifications.
BTECs are also offered in subjects that are generally associated with classroom learning, such as computing and engineering, as well as areas that students may have never come across in school before, such as travel and tourism.
To see a complete list of all the BTECs you could study, check out this page that will take you to the Pearson’s website (Pearson is the body currently running BTECs).
Are BTECs further or higher education?
In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, qualifications are assigned ‘levels’, which makes it easier to compare equivalent qualifications. For example, GCSEs at a Grade 9 to 4 count as a Level 2 qualification, while A-Levels are a Level 3 qualification. Further Education, typically in a sixth form or college, involves studying a Level 3 qualification, while Higher Education involves qualifications from Level 4 and above, often studied at a university. If you want to look into this further, this page of the government website has a full list of the qualifications at each level.
If you want to find out more about further and higher education, check out these articles:
Although most people studying BTECs are taking them as an alternative to A-Levels (Level 3), they are actually available at several different levels, from GCSE equivalents, all the way up to degree standard.
There are many subgroups of BTEC qualifications, which are briefly outlined on this page of the Pearson website. While the number of different BTEC types can seem overwhelming, there are three main BTEC qualifications that are most commonly studied.
BTEC Firsts are a group of Level 2 qualifications – a BTEC First Diploma is equivalent to 4 GCSEs.
They offer a practical, interactive introduction to work in a vocational sector, typically for those in the 14-16 age group. However, there are options for students older than 16 to start at this stage by studying the BTEC Level 2 Technical qualification. This ensures they get the foundation knowledge needed to progress to further levels. After completing their BTEC Firsts, students can continue with their education, or alternatively, enter the workplace by applying for an apprenticeship.
BTEC Nationals is the main group of BTEC qualifications for Level 3 study, which is equivalent to A-Levels. Through these qualifications, students have the opportunity to develop specialist, career-focussed knowledge and skills in their chosen sector. After completing BTEC Nationals, students are able to continue their learning in a higher education setting such as a university or enter the world of employment.
These courses have become much more flexible since they were first introduced – now, there are options to take BTEC National courses that are equivalent to 1 A-Level (National Extended Certificate), 2 A-Levels (National Diploma) or 3 A-Levels (National Extended Diploma).
This freedom means that many students take a combination of A-Levels and BTECs, choosing the qualification most suited to each particular subject they want to study.
BTEC Higher Nationals
Many of the students who want to study a BTEC at university level choose BTEC Higher Nationals. While these are not full degrees, a Higher National is equivalent to the first and second year of an undergraduate degree, offering high-quality, specialist teaching in a work-based environment, after which many students enter full-time employment.
There are various other BTEC qualifications, including apprenticeships, and a BTEC Professional course. These can go up to a Level 7 qualification – equivalent to a master’s degree. As you might have noticed, choosing a BTEC qualification is not always straightforward!
However, the range of options available means that you can choose the level and type of qualification best suited to your circumstances and preferences, and there is plenty of flexibility as you continue with your journey – whether that be into further education, or the world of work.
Where can you study BTECs?
There are various institutions that offer BTECs, most of which are colleges in England. The website findcourses.co.uk allows you to search for providers and courses for many qualifications, including BTECs, across the UK. Many of these colleges run flexible BTEC courses that work to the student’s needs – some even coordinate online BTEC courses, which may be ideal for students who want to study a BTEC alongside the A-Levels they are taking at a sixth form college.
It is important to note that in July 2021, the government announced several changes to the system of qualifications in place in the UK. This included the news that BTEC qualifications would start to be phased out and replaced by a different type of qualification (T-Levels) which would be new courses that also follow a vocational and practical approach to learning. If you want to learn more about T-Levels check out this Think Student article.
While a large number of BTECs are still being provided by a number of colleges and institutions at the moment, this is likely to change over the next few years as more of them switch to offering T-Levels. This article from Think Student offers further information to help you compare BTECs and T-Levels.
Before applying to any BTEC courses, it is important to check with the provider (i.e., school/college) about their plans for the future of BTECs at their institution, and how this will affect your particular course. A possible starting point to consider is what year you intend to start and finish the course.
Can you apply to university with BTECs?
One of the most commonly asked questions about BTEC qualifications is whether you can use them to apply to university – the short answer is yes! In recent years, around 25% of successful applicants to university held at least one BTEC.
Although most applicants have studied A-Levels, many universities accept the equivalent qualification BTEC Nationals, including Russell Group universities such as Birmingham and Bristol, and even some universities abroad. The best thing to do is check the website of the university you would like to apply to, where there will be detailed information about what requirements there are for the course you would like to study.
To read more about whether universities accept BTECs I suggest you read this Think Student article.
How many UCAS points are BTECs worth?
UCAS – the body that oversees university applications in the UK – has a system that converts qualifications and grades achieved into points. There are four possible BTEC National grades. Distinction* (D*) is the highest, followed by distinction (D), then Merit (M), then Pass (P). Each of these grades correspond to a certain number of UCAS points, as shown in this table.
|BTEC Grade||UCAS Points|
For comparison, an A-Level at a Grade A* is worth 56 points, a Grade C is worth 32 points, and a Grade E is worth 16 points. For a full guide to UCAS points, take a look at this article by theuniguide.co.uk.
Some BTECs may result in more than one of these grades – for instance, the BTEC National Extended Diploma, which is equivalent to three A-Levels, results in three of the above grades. To calculate the UCAS points total, simply add up the points for each individual grade. As an example, if a student’s final grade for the National Extended Diploma is DDM, their UCAS points total is 48 + 48 + 32 = 128.
Often, universities will state their entry requirements as a number of UCAS points, instead of grades, as this accommodates the wide range of qualifications students apply with, all with different grading systems. It is helpful to look at university websites to check how many UCAS points they typically require potential applicants to have. This can help to set goals, and find out what grades you would like to aim for when taking BTEC Nationals.
What does a BTEC course involve?
A BTEC qualification is divided into units, each covering certain knowledge and skills needed in that subject. Some of these are called core units, which are completed by every BTEC student taking that course. Core units provide a general foundation of understanding about the sector, giving students key skills that will be important when moving on to more specialist topics.
As well as the core units, students can choose from a variety of optional units. These cover more specialist knowledge in the sector. Students can choose these based on their own personal interests, and which areas of the course they find the most interesting, or which ones are most relevant to the career path they would like to take in the future.
Within these units, students take part in a range of assignments, which vary depending on the course they are taking. In an engineering related BTEC, students may undertake a project that requires them to build a prototype or device, while a performing arts BTEC student may spend a unit creating a play or even a short film to record.
As well as these practical projects, courses may also include written assignments to solidify understanding of certain foundation knowledge. Depending on the type of assignment, students may be working individually or as a group – or most likely, a combination of both throughout the course.
How are BTECs assessed?
Unlike qualifications like GCSEs and A-Levels, which are largely exam-focussed, BTECs are assessed throughout the course through a variety of tests, assignments and coursework. This ultimately means the assessment is spread out through many pieces of work, rather than concentrated into a small number of exams.
This can reduce the pressure placed on students, as they have many opportunities to display the standard of their work. It doesn’t place the focus on a small number of assessments which may not be the students’ best work. For this reason, BTECs are often suited well to those who struggle under exam conditions, and work better when given their own time to complete a project or written assignment to the best of their ability.
The final outcome of a BTEC qualification will be a grade, with D* (distinction*) as the highest. These grades can then be converted to UCAS points – as shown in the table earlier in this article.
To find out more about how BTECs are assessed visit the Pearson’s website here.
What is the difference between BTECs and A-Levels?
The first thing to note is that, when comparing BTECs and A-Levels, the BTEC qualification in question is BTEC Nationals – the equivalent qualification. Other BTECs, at different levels, have far fewer similarities to A-Levels, which are always Level 3 qualifications.
Although BTEC Nationals are equivalent to A-Levels, students often have a very different experience while studying them. A-Levels are taught in a very similar style to the rest of school-age education. The learning is largely theory-based, almost always taught by teachers in classrooms, in a specific education setting like a school or college.
BTECs, with a much larger practical focus, tend to involve direct application of the knowledge gained through the course, giving students hands-on experience in a setting much more like the world of work than a classroom.
These two qualifications are also assessed very differently. The majority of A-Levels are linear qualifications, meaning they are almost entirely assessed by exam papers taken at the end of the course, typically in the summer of Year 13. In contrast to this, BTECs are assessed throughout the course, via coursework and projects. While written assignments or tests may also form a part of the qualification, there is much less of an emphasis on them, due to the active nature of the BTEC courses.
Both qualifications, however, are popular choices for students studying at Level 3, typically when they are aged 16-18. Both are valid qualifications that develop important skills and allow progression to the next stage of a student’s life, whether that be continuing in education or entering employment. This article from Think Student may be useful to read when choosing post-16 options, as it guides you through a thorough comparison of A-Levels and BTECs.
Pros and cons of BTECs
BTEC courses typically give students more freedom and flexibility than classroom-based qualifications. Many students are used to rigidly timetabled school days, with much of the work being teacher led. As a BTEC student, you are likely to have fewer lessons, and therefore more free time to individually work on projects and assignments.
While this can be difficult to get used to at first, and it is important to plan your free time wisely to ensure you stay on top of your workload. It can also be a welcome change to the typical structure of a school day. Learning the skills it takes to manage your time effectively will also be useful when it comes to higher education or employment, where a working day may be much less structured than in a regular secondary school.
This practical experience is often helpful in later applications, both to higher education and for jobs. Universities and employers are often looking for real-life experience in a relevant field, which many A-Level students gain via work experience, which they have to complete separately to their A-Level courses. However, with BTECs, the applied experience is a fundamental part of the course rather than something students have to look for externally.