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To BTEC or not to BTEC, that is the question: UPDATE

UPDATED Sunday 12th April 2020
It seems that Oqual finally responded to pleas from students and tried to reassure BTEC, and other students still waiting, that their plight had not been forgotten. A further announcement ‘Awarding vocational and technical qualifications this summer’ was made last Thursday, almost a week after the arrangements for A-Level results were issued. This was done just in time for the Easter weekend with a promise that “Calculated results for qualifications used for progression to higher and further education. Arrangements for other qualifications to be issued after Easter”. 

The announcement doesn’t indicate how long after Easter they will have to wait. Indeed, it may be some time, even weeks, as the details reveal that,

 “We are working with awarding organisations to finalise a list of qualifications that we will advise the Secretary of State should be in scope for learners to receive a calculated result. It will include many BTEC Nationals, Cambridge Technicals, and UAL Diplomas as well as general qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, Cambridge Pre-U and qualifications included under the umbrella term ‘Core Maths’. We are discussing the process for generating calculated results with awarding organisations, who will provide detailed information to their centres in the coming days and weeks”.

The simple fact that this delay was not communicated at the same time as the A-level arrangements leads to a suggestion that Ofqual had ‘dropped the ball’ on the matter of these qualifications. The delay also tends to suggest that they were off the Ofqual radar. Something that should have been clearly visible as a problem well in advance. Or perhaps the officials and government only have experience of the A-Level route and they were blind to other possibilities that offer a lifeline to many students.

Original posting.

The release of details of how many students will be awarded the qualifications they need to access universities this summer is welcome news. The process has the potential of being fair and is probably the only pragmatic solution. It is hoped that it will not introduce bias against disadvantaged students who often achieve higher examination results than predicted. But there is also a glaring omission in the plans. There is no reassurance or advice for those taking BTEC and other access courses. There are a substantial number of such students still waiting. This gap should be addressed with urgency.

Ofqual finally released on Friday details of ‘How GCSEs, AS & A levels will be awarded in summer 2020’ in the absence of formal examinations. This covers England and Wales and a similar approach is planned in Scotland by the SQA. It appears Northern Ireland has yet to release its guide which is likely to be the same. This was welcomed in the media as a positive move (Guardian 4th April 2020 Exam regulator unveils GCSE and A-level plans for coronavirus crisis) and welcome for the students involved.

The guide is divided into information for heads, Guidance for teachers, students, parents and carers and a letter to students and is clear in its message.

All of this is reassuring and offers some relief for many students who are planning to go to university later this year. The positive note was echoed by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) with ‘WEEKEND READING: A*++ for Ofqual and the SQA: this year’s school exam grades could well be the fairest ever’ written by Dennis Sherwood, a consultant who runs the ‘The Silver Bullet Machine’.

Indeed, all seems fine and it is encouraging that Ofqual is trusting teachers. It is also encouraging that students will be ranked and some normalisation will be used to reach a final award grade as noted with “This information will be used in the statistical standardisation of centres’ judgements – allowing fine tuning of the standard applied across all schools and colleges”. 

One niggling doubt is the pressure that will be put upon teachers to reach a positive decision about the future of their students. Up to now, they encouraged and prepared them for the examinations they did not control. Then waited in anticipation to celebrate or commiserate with them. Now they hold the key to success and a degree of power that they had not expected. The hope is that schools will seek to check and moderate the decisions between more than one staff member and so spread the load of responsibility. The hope is that their integrity is respected by students and parents who also trust them. I suspect it will not be plain sailing.

What about BTEC students? That is the question.

The announcements on Friday cover a majority of students hoping for a university place. However, there is a glaring, and frankly very serious, gap that is not addressed. There is still no advice or reassurance for a substantial number who are banking on BTEC and other access courses. I have been in communication with one BTEC student on Friday who is not getting any useful information from a prospective university or the college in which he is currently enrolled. The plight of BTEC students is just as serious and they should have been served with equal consideration. 

The latest figures from UCAS End of Cycle Report 2019 Chapter 8 Qualifications show the extent to which BTEC qualified students were admitted to our universities over the years; either as a sole qualification or in combination. See Figure 1 taken from the latest report.

Attempts to discover how these students will be considered in 2020 has drawn a blank since Friday. The Business and Technology Education Council (BTEC) is a subsidiary of Pearson plc who provide the assessments (see About BTEC). Pearson has indicated in their latest release ‘UK BTEC, Work-based learning and Functional Skills assessment arrangements in light of COVID-19’ that “We are working with other Awarding Organisations and Ofqual to understand how we can approach this. We will be in touch as soon as we are able to give you further information and instructions”


The latest statement from Ofqual ‘Statement on vocational and technical qualifications in 2020’ goes back to 25th March 2020 with the promise “We will work with stakeholders to finalise an awarding approach”

This delay is certainly not good enough. Bear in mind that BTEC students have worked just as hard, and many come from less advantaged families and areas. It is not acceptable that they are treated as a ‘Cinderella’ students left at the back of the queue. 

“For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of unworthy takes”

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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