Schools and universities should do more to help students to identify which BTEC qualifications are most likely to help them progress to higher education, a thintank has recommended.
A new report from the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) says that the increase in high-attaining pupils studying sports science has outstripped that in other science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) subjects.
Dr Scott Kelly, the author of the report, said: “BTECs engage students that other qualifications do not reach. But when sports science has been growing faster than all other Stem subjects, their rapid growth raises some important questions.
“Young people need better information on the options they are choosing, and universities need to ensure they are giving BTEC students the support they need.”
The shift in the subjects that students are choosing to study at BTEC may reflect the capacity of schools to teach them, rather than the economic needs of the country, the report concludes.
It says: “The fastest-growing BTECs are typically in subjects that are either largely classroom-based or can be taught using existing school facilities or equipment."
The relationship between the subjects taken at key stage 5 and those most valued by universities, especially more selective institutions, is unclear, the report says.
It calls for schools to ensure that students “receive the information and guidance they need to make more informed choices”.
The report also says universities need to issue collective guidance on which BTECs are most valuable to students who want to progress to study on degree courses, much like they have already done for A levels.
In 2015, the proportion of 18-year-old acceptances holding higher grade BTEC nationals, the equivalent of ABB+ at A level, stood at 16.7 per cent at lower-tariff providers, 9.9 per cent at medium-tariff providers and only 2.3 per cent at higher-tariff providers, according to the report.
More than a third (35 per cent) of subjects studied by BTEC students achieving the equivalent of three A levels are in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) family – but within this group the growth in sports science has outstripped all other subjects.
The number of pupils achieving high grades in sports science tripled from 3,305 in 2005-06 to 9,570 in 2012-13, rising as a proportion from 15 per cent to 17 per cent.
Meanwhile, subjects such as engineering and technology, and construction and the built environment, have grown in terms of numbers but remained flat as a proportion of all BTEC students over the same period.
The report says: “As BTECs and A levels offer different opportunities for progression, schools should ensure that learners receive the information and guidance they need to make more informed choices at level 3.”
The report also acknowledges that the rise in the number of students achieving the highest grades is a “cause for concern”, and the organisation calls for “greater external moderation”.
Nick Hillman, director of the HEPI, said: “The growth in BTECs has unlocked access to higher education in unprecedented ways, and this progress must be maintained.
"But it would be irresponsible to ignore the important policy questions because there is a yawning gap between how BTEC students think they will fare at university and how they actually fare.”