Pupils in England gained more GCSE A*-C equivalent passes last year in a qualification that does not feature in published national results than they did by taking English and maths GCSEs combined, The TES can reveal.
The equivalent of nearly 1 million A*-C grades - 912,292 - were awarded through BTEC First qualifications: these are non-exam courses that are regarded as equivalent to GCSEs for league table and school accountability purposes.
This compares with 871,360 passes at C or better awarded to UK pupils in English and maths GCSEs combined. The figures were calculated from results revealed for the first time by Edexcel, the board that runs the work- related BTEC brand. The results also reveal these courses' high pass rates.
Some 80 per cent of those who started BTEC First Diploma courses, worth four GCSEs at A*-C, gained at least a pass last year. For the BTEC First Certificate, worth two GCSEs at A*-C, the pass rate among those who registered was also 80 per cent.
Among those who received any kind of grade at the end of the course - the calculation used for GCSEs and A-levels - the figures are higher. More than 99 per cent of grades awarded for the BTEC First Diploma were at least a pass - 1 per cent were U grades - while for BTEC First Certificates, the pass rate was 97 per cent.
The figures raise questions over the weighting of BTECs and other alternative, internally assessed qualifications in GCSE calculations. BTEC results have not been published before - despite being largely publicly funded through entry fees from state schools and colleges, and despite Edexcel saying that they have had an impact on some schools' league table performance.
The regulator, Ofqual, has also said that BTECs are not regulated as GCSEs are, although they are counted as equivalent courses. Asked for the results of pupils in BTECs, it said it did not collect the data.
League table, target and Ofsted pressures are thought to play a part in the surging popularity of BTEC Firsts, which are offered at level 2, or GCSE-equivalent, in subjects such as applied science, information and communications technology, and sport.
The Conservatives controversially vowed last year to remove vocational qualifications from league tables. The Department for Education would not say whether this was still in ministers' plans, however.
Schools teaching BTEC Firsts are likely to get past, or near to, the threshold five A*-C GCSEs including English and maths with most pupils, as long as students also achieve Cs in maths and English GCSEs.
The overall number of registrations for BTEC Firsts has more than doubled in two years, from 287,437 in 2008 to 580,173 this year. The biggest surge has come in entries for the two-GCSE BTEC First Certificates - entries have nearly trebled to 365,778.
Edexcel's data reveals that, of the 395,003 entries for BTEC Firsts in 2009, 11 per cent were given a starred distinction, 8 per cent were awarded a distinction, 20 per cent gained a merit and 41 per cent achieved a pass; 1 per cent received a U, while 19 per cent of those registered obtained no grade.
Nearly 3.7 million A*-C grades were awarded through GCSEs in all subjects last year. BTEC First and OCR National entry numbers for 2010 suggest that they will contribute nearly half that figure this year.
In the foreword to a promotional document Edexcel published in 2008, then managing director Jerry Jarvis set out reasons schools should choose BTECs. He said: "If you think a student will fail to realise their potential by doing GCSEs, then the BTEC is the best alternative for them."
He added: "Students who aren't engaged by academic study find that BTECs can provide them with a challenging and rewarding learning experience that leads to a highly regarded and useful qualification.
"Secondly, some students simply choose the BTEC route because they are already drawn to a vocational career path and want to personalise their learning.
"As a result of introducing BTECs, some schools have risen dramatically up league performance tables."
OCR's figures show that 122,276 pupils passed the OCR National First Award this year, which is worth one GCSE A*-C. Some 81,771 passed the OCR National Award, worth two A*-Cs; 17,734 passed the OCR National First Certificate, worth three A*-Cs; and 28,420 gained an OCR National Certificate, worth four A*-Cs. This equates to 452,700 A*-Cs.
The board said it could not provide pass rates, and that it was not valid to compare entry figures with the number of passes as students could complete the courses at any time. Data on distinction, merit and pass rates show the proportion of distinctions awarded varying between 1 and 40 per cent, depending on subject and level, this year.
Although BTECs have an established following at level 3 in post-16 education, wide support in schools at level 2 for both BTEC Firsts and OCR Nationals is newer, and more contentious.
The TES revealed in January that entries for OCR National level 2 IT qualifications have grown by 669 per cent in two years.
Critics say the high weighting given to them in league tables skews schools' decisions on what is offered to pupils.
Some argue that teenagers are losing out because the level 2 courses do not have the same value to employers and further and higher education as GCSEs.
Asked for evidence on the usefulness of BTEC Firsts to pupils, Edexcel said: "Edexcel is carrying out a large research project exploring the progression from BTECs to be completed this autumn. An initial pilot study of more than 100 BTEC level 2 students suggests that more than 80 per cent of these students progress to further education."
Other teachers argue that BTECs and OCR Nationals are worthwhile, especially when taught well, and that the courses are challenging and give them freedom over teaching and assessment. Some add that the courses are wrongly perceived as easy options. OCR said OCR Nationals build pupils' research, independent learning, time management and problem-solving skills.
A source involved with the support of functional skills tests, who backs the Government's Diploma, was scathing about BTECs and OCR Nationals, describing them as "box-ticking" qualifications.
Chris Healy, head of Balcarras School in Cheltenham, which starts BTEC courses in PE, health and social care and travel and tourism next month, said: "BTECs are so popular because they guarantee two GCSEs, at grade C, even for the lowest-ability pupils. The reservations that people might have about them as valid, rigorous courses are probably true.
"Schools are taking them for the benefit of the school's standing, but also for the benefit of the young people, who get what look like nice qualifications. They will not prepare the pupils who take them for A- levels; what they will do is give a pupil who might have got an F in a GCSE the equivalent of two Bs (through gaining a merit in a BTEC). That is a big boost to their morale and confidence."
He added that multi-GCSE equivalence was "totally unjustified and dishonest".
A teacher at a London school said: "Everyone (here) gets put in for BTECs `worth' four GCSEs, and then they turn up at the local college and they can find they're not worth it.
"A pupil asked me how many GCSEs history is worth. I said one, and they said it's not enough: they can get four for taking an ICT course. It's ridiculous."
Other questions are being asked about the equivalence, given that the two sets of qualifications are regulated differently.
Ofqual was asked last year why it did not collect data on BTECs, while GCSE and A-level results were subject to intense public scrutiny. A spokesman replied: "BTEC qualifications are work-related qualifications, relate to National Occupational Standards and as such are different to GCSE (and A-level) qualifications, and are therefore regulated in a different way."
The regulator operated a "risk-based approach" to qualifications monitoring, and was currently scrutinising BTEC First Certificates and Diplomas in science, he said. As only Edexcel is the only exam board to offer BTECs, there were no issues of discrepancy of standards between boards.
A source close to qualifications development said standards in BTECs and GCSEs were controlled very differently. Whereas GCSEs were developed against centrally laid-down learning outcomes and criteria, BTECs were not.
This meant that, while the courses could be good if teaching was good, it was difficult to be sure that consistent assessment decisions were being made.
The source said that the qualifications were subject to different degrees of attention and scrutiny for reasons of class: middle-class 16-year-olds tended to take qualifications with "GCSE" in the title.
The source said: "We have a cohort of young people aged 14 to 19, some of whose qualifications are subject to very tight regulatory arrangements and defined behaviour from awarding bodies in terms of assurance processes.
"Then we have another group - many of whom are from more challenging backgrounds - whose qualifications are subject to less rigorous regulation.
"If these were the children of middle-class England, the awarding bodies would not get away with it."
Edexcel said: "Edexcel works closely with schools and teachers to offer a choice of qualifications to ensure the most appropriate style of teaching and assessment for their learners.
"BTECs offer a combination of theoretical learning and practical implementation which can appeal to students whose learning style does not suit the more traditional qualifications assessed through examination.
"BTECs are rigorous and demanding qualifications and the specifications relate to National Occupational Standards due to their practical nature, and are accordingly regulated by . Ofqual.
"Edexcel assigns an external verifier to each centre for each registered year of BTEC students and will monitor teacher assessment through sampling andor visits to the centre. BTECs offer a real and valued route into further education and employment."
IT COURSES COMPARED
Looking in detail at the main BTEC First IT qualification, it's easy to feel underwhelmed.
I compared the 2008 BTEC First Certificate course with those of Edexcel's Diploma in Information Technology.
The GCSE-equivalent Level 2 Diploma seems stimulating, wide-ranging and current.
The first unit assesses understanding of technology systems' functions, why an organisation should implement or improve a system, and how technology is changing individuals and societies.
For the BTEC's first unit, pupils must describe the structure and use of different documents; describe different types and sources of information and check validity; create documents of different types for different audiences; and three other tasks.
You could argue that pupils should be familiar with these requirements from key stage 2, where the curriculum says they should learn "how to prepare information for development using ICT"; "how to share information in a variety of forms"; and "to be sensitive of the needs of the audience".
Other BTEC units also look pedestrian. Unit two's demands include: "describe the purpose of different types of computer".
While Diploma students must do seven compulsory modules, the first BTEC unit is one of only three needed for the certificate: pupils pick two others from a 24-strong list.
Of course, the level 2 Diploma is "worth" seven GCSEs, against two for BTEC First Certificates, but has other requirements, including project work and functional skills tests. The BTEC probably gives the scope to be interesting, wide-ranging and demanding if pupils are taught well. But the specification offers no guarantees.
- Original headline: Taking the easy path? Why BTECs have doubled