Last week, the Higher Education Policy Institute published a report on BTECs and university admissions [PDF].

It recognised that much of the increase in the proportion of young people achieving Level 3 – A-Levels or equivalents – by age 19 (see Table 3 here, XLSX) has been driven by increased participation in BTECs and other vocational qualifications.

And colleagues at the Social Market Foundation have previously shown that there was a threefold increase in number of pupils taking a BTEC between 2006 and 2015 (see Figure 3 here, PDF).

The HEPI report advises cautious reform of BTECs, urging policymakers to protect their distinctiveness whilst recognising that “the rise in the number of students achieving the highest grades is cause for concern.”

They also observe that the fact that “some BTECs have grown far more rapidly tha[n] others may reflect the capacity of schools to offer them, rather than particular demand” – although BTECs are far more common in colleges than in schools. In 2016, 76% of BTECs included in post-16 performance tables were entered by students in colleges compared to 28% of entries in A-Levels.

Analysis of 2016 Level 3 attainment data shows that BTECs tend to be taken by students with lower levels of prior attainment.

In the chart below, we have allocated all pupils who reached the end of Level 3 study in 2016 to one of 20 equally sized bands, or vintiles, based on their mean grade in GCSEs at Key Stage 4. It then shows the mean number of entries (in A-Level equivalents) in A-Levels, BTECs and all Level 3 qualifications – which includes other qualifications such as AS-Levels, applied A-Levels and technical certificates.

Mean number of entries in different Level 3 qualifications by GCSE prior attainment

Both the Department for Education and UCAS [PDF] determine the equivalence of BTECs to A-Levels using points score systems. UCAS has just upgraded its tariff system for 2017 admissions. However, the DfE and UCAS differ in how they equivalise BTECs, and these differences are shown in the table below.

Whereas UCAS consider a distinction in a BTEC to be equivalent to a grade A at A-Level, the DfE only consider it to be midway between grade B and grade C.

BTEC grade UCAS tariff UCAS equivalence to A-Level DfE points DfE equivalence to A-Level
Starred distinction 56 A* 50 A
Distinction 48 A 35 Between B and C
Merit 32 C 25 Between C and D
Pass 16 E 15 Between D and E


Now that performance tables report results in A-Levels separately to applied general qualifications, the DfE system of equivalence is less relevant.

But UCAS points can still be used for university admission, although as the HEPI report makes clear, this varies by institution.

It suggests that some of the more selective universities are reluctant to take on students who have completed BTECs. Meanwhile, “other institutions could do more to ensure that students with applied backgrounds are able to make the transition to more theoretical study.” Of course, BTECs are likely to be better preparation for some types of course more than others.

But at some point, the equivalence of BTECs and A-Levels in university admission decisions has to be addressed. Is a student who has achieved three distinctions in an extended BTEC Diploma of equivalent ability to a student with three As at A-Level, as the UCAS points system implies?

The next chart shows the average UCAS points per entry for BTECs and A-Levels achieved in 2016. In some parts of the distribution BTECs score the equivalent of two grades higher than A-Levels. Over 30% of BTEC awards are graded starred distinction. These are considered equivalent to A* at A-Level yet under 10% of A-Levels were graded as such.

Average UCAS points per entry by GCSE prior attainment

The picture is further complicated by the fact that there are variations in grades awarded in different subjects. We examined the severity of grading in different A-Levels here. There are also variations between BTECs. Those equivalent to a single A-Level (e.g. a subsidiary diploma) tend to score more highly. We leave this to one side.

UCAS may wish to reconsider the points it awards to BTECs. I’ve suggested some in the table below.

BTEC grade Suggested points Suggested equivalence to A-Level
Starred distinction 38 Between B and C
Distinction 32 C
Merit 24 D
Pass 16 E


These scores work reasonably well for vintiles 1-13 where most BTEC entries are located. But as we’ve capped the maximum BTEC score at 38, A-Level and BTEC scores begin to diverge for students with higher prior attainment.

There may be an argument for extending or reforming the grading scale used for BTEC qualifications.

Average UCAS points per entry by GCSE prior attainment using suggested points

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