Let battle over BTECs commence

OCR and Edexcel go head-to-head over vocational qualifications

Stephen Exley

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They are available in hundreds of different subjects and have been sat by millions of school and college students. Over the past 28 years, BTECs have become the dominant qualification in the vocational marketplace and a money-spinner for exam board Edexcel, as well as its owner, publishing giant Pearson.

But the BTEC's stranglehold on the market is under threat. This spring, rival exam board OCR launched its own qualification, the Cambridge TEC, in a bid to end the BTEC hegemony.

Now OCR has stepped up the battle with its competitor. Chief executive Mark Dawe has described the BTEC as "tired and uncared for", unduly expensive for providers and more focused on quantity than quality.

"We are taking on the Pearson monopoly," he told TES. "We want to gain a substantial part of the BTEC market. From my experience as an FE principal (at Oaklands College in Hertfordshire), there's a feeling in colleges that the BTEC has become tired and they are not being listened to."

Relations between the exam boards are already tense as a result of OCR's incursion into Edexcel's vocational qualification territory. Indeed, OCR's initial plans to brand the qualification the "CTEC" - an attempt to position it as a BTEC alternative - were quickly squashed by Pearson's lawyers.

But Mr Dawe believes that referencing the prestigious University of Cambridge - of which OCR is part - in the title will help the vocational qualification to earn parity of esteem with academic alternatives. "The BTEC may have been around for over 20 years, but Cambridge has been around for 800," he said. "If we are going to use its name, we have to make sure the qualification is of a high quality."

While BTEC qualifications are available from foundation level up to level 5, OCR is instead focusing on levels 2 and 3. It will also concentrate on subjects relating to white-collar professions such as IT, business, health and social care. In contrast, BTECs are available in a wider range of subjects.

The main selling point of the Cambridge TEC, OCR argues, is its cost, which is on average 16 per cent less than the BTEC. Switching a cohort of 200 learners to the OCR qualification would save an institute pound;3,640, it claims; were the whole FE sector to jump ship, it says, providers would save pound;3.5 million.

As both sets of qualifications are recognised by Ofqual's Qualifications and Credit Framework, they share many common units, but OCR has made changes for specific courses. It also offers institutions two free visits from a moderator a year, unlike the BTEC system.

A Pearson spokesman said that the company welcomed moves to increase the provision of vocational and applied learning, which, he said, is "vitally important both to individuals and the broader economy". But the spokesman defended the work the company had done with BTECs, which he said had been continually improved by working in partnership with schools, colleges, universities and employers. "[This means] we can always be absolutely confident that they represent the highest quality in vocational education and assessment," he said.

"The success of our approach is borne out in over a million registrations each year, across all levels of study," he added. "The latest figures show over 100,000 BTEC students successfully applied to higher education. Independent research shows that the possession of a BTEC has a significant positive impact on an individual's employment outcomes and lifetime earnings.

"We will continue to make whatever investment is needed to ensure the value of BTEC remains second-to-none among vocational qualifications available in schools and colleges."

Dominant force

Numbers of students who took BTECs in 2010-11:

Level 1 - 53,474

Level 2 - 665,939

Level 3 - 280,785

Total - 1,000,198.

Original headline: Let the exam boards' battle over BTECs commence

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Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley

Stephen Exley is a freelance writer, director of external affairs at Villiers Park Educational Trust and former FE editor at Tes.

Find me on Twitter @stephenexley

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