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To BTEC or not to BTEC – is that still a question?

The vacuum of decision making surrounding the arrangements for BTEC and other similar qualifications this summer has been partially filled by Ofqual. However, there is still a long way to go. The variety and complexity of how students are assessed falls mainly onto the qualification awarding organisation. This is exclusively Pearson plc for BTEC assessments. The outcome in relation to widening access and equality will be scrutinised with greater vigour later this summer as more light is shone onto an ongoing problem of disadvantage. The hope is that greater understanding of how fewer resources cause educational disadvantage will lead to a better and more equal future.

Ofqal finally announced on 24th April how they intend to deal with BTEC and other similar qualifications this summer. After they produced their guidance on 3rd April 2020, ‘How GCSEs, AS & A levels will be awarded in summer 2020’ in the absence of formal examinations, TEFS observed that there was no indication about how other qualifications were going to proceed (see TEFS 5th April 2020 ‘To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question’). This represented a major gap in advice affecting many thousands of students. In particular, it was noted from the UCAS ‘2019 End of Cycle Report’ that the “total number of UK 18-year-old students entering HE with vocationally related qualifications has grown”. Of these, 25,715 entered a UK university with BTEC qualifications alone, 20,350 with a combination of BTEC and A-levels and 4,475 with OCR ‘Cambridge Technicals’. This represents a significant number for whom no plan was in place for the classes of 2020. 

A further announcement ‘Awarding vocational and technical qualifications this summer’ was made by Ofqual just before the Easter weekend, almost a week after the arrangements for A-Level results were put out. This was, however, a holding statement to assure students that they had not been forgotten “Calculated results for qualifications used for progression to higher and further education. Arrangements for other qualifications to be issued after Easter”. It might have helped to steady nerves if they had remembered to do this alongside the announcement on A-levels. 

Progress at last.

Finally, a detailed set of proposals was set out on Friday 24th April in the form of a consultation ‘Exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020’. The closing date for responses is very close,11:45pm on 8 May 2020, but can be done online. Anyone considering this will have to wade through a considerable amount of text in two main documents; ‘Exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020’ of 75 pages and ‘Exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020’ of 32 pages. There is also a 21 page summary in ‘Consultation summary - exceptional arrangements for assessment and grading in 2020’.

What stands out is the complexity of dealing with a wide range of qualifications that are normally assessed in many ways. Nevertheless, a sensible differentiation of the type of qualification has been taken by separating out those used for progression to further or higher education, those serving a mixed purpose and those signalling occupational competence. This approach alone makes the task for Ofqual an order of magnitude more difficult than dealing with GCSE’s and A-levels. But in the end, the principles appear to remain very similar since, “For qualifications used for progression to further or higher education, it is government policy that, as far as possible, qualifications in this category should be treated in the same way as GCSEs, AS and A levels, with learners receiving a calculated result.”

A large and complex task awaits.

Unfortunately, the complexity arising from a considerable variation between subjects leads to a somewhat woolly statement, “The approach will need to allow awarding organisations to devise and implement approaches to calculating grades which are appropriate within different contexts.” This will no doubt lead in turn to a considerable onus put onto the lecturers involved.

Ofqual cover this simply with “We propose that awarding organisations must provide effective guidance to a centre on the provision of any information that the awarding organisation requires in order to calculate a learner's result”. These will have to accommodate a mixture of assessments that include a “centre assessment grade for each learner (generated by the centre) and/or a calculated grade (determined by the awarding organisation) based on the results they already hold for the learner”. They must also provide “quality assurance of the overall calculated result (which is derived from the centre assessment grade and/or any awarding organisation calculated grade)”. This involves “a check on overall qualification level outcomes and grade profile, and that it is in line with expectations”.

The extent of the work involved by lecturers and colleges might have been underestsimated. This is because, in asking the ‘awarding organisations’ to devise their approach to calculating results, they must “identify the evidence that is available, and evidence that can be collected” then “evaluate the level of trust they would place in each source of evidence” and “devise an approach which maximises the use of the most trusted source of evidence”.

Who does this?

The Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) is a subsidiary of commercial organisation Pearson plc who provide the assessments for all BTEC qualifications (see About BTEC). They have been left with a monumental task of meeting the requirements outlined above. It will be interesting to see how they respond as a commercial organisation with an interest in the ‘bottom line’. It might be expected that there will be a cascade of effort and responsibility falling onto the colleges and their lecturers. The Pearson announcement on the same day ‘Consultation on the assessment and grading of vocational, technical and other general qualification’ doesn’t yet reflect the enormity of the task other than the caveat “we will endeavour to award to as many learners as possible within the Ofqual guidelines”.

Don't forget the students with fewer advantages.

TEFS has been concerned about how students with disadvantages get fair consideration. The main worry is that the enormity of the overall task means they are lost in the confusion. With ‘Exam nightmare on and off campus’ there was a call to make sure that “equality and fairness are sitting in full view at the top of the priorities”. These are not listed as the top priorities by Ofqual when reliability and standards come into play. But there is an acknowledgement that awarding organisations are “to protect, as far as is possible, learners from being systematically advantaged or disadvantaged, notwithstanding their socio-economic background or whether they have a protected characteristic”. There is no detail about how this might be achieved other than put the onus onto the organisations coming to terms with this.

The fallout from these hasty arrangements may cause ripples for a long time to come. However, this has also brought into focus the existing inequalities and the shortfall in the opportunities that poor circumstances already promote. It is hoped that everyone concerned might take more heed of a report by the Sutton Trust in 2017 that concluded ‘Poorer pupils at a disadvantage over A-level grade predictions’. This is now a well-established phenomenon that infects the whole system and it may become a similar picture for BTEC. Simply put, students are disadvantaged when applying for university and then later find that their predicted grades were lower than their actual grades in the examinations. Hopefully, there is increasing confidence in the system as it moves on and that success is there for those that most deserve it through their efforts.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University


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