HE Exams Wiki

What are BTECs, NVQs and Vocational Qualifications?

Pearson Edexcel Btec awards ceremony

Vocational qualifications are work-focused and the syllabus is intended to prepare you for a particular job, though you can also use them for admission to further study.  Vocational qualifications are an alternative to 'academic' qualifications such as GCSEs and A-levels, which mainly prepare you for moving on to further study rather than for a specific job.

The most well-known vocational qualifications are BTECs, NVQs, HNDs and HNCs. This page is about BTECs but largely the same pros and cons apply to NVQs (National Vocational Qualifications).

Level 3 vocational qualifications are currently being reformed and replaced with T-levels. However, this is taking place over several years. T-levels will have the same sort of vocational content but more empasis on some academic elements, and more work experience. Level 1 and Level 2 vocational qualifications are being reviewed but are still available and will be on an ongoing basis.

Pearson Edexcel say:

"Many industry sectors have a set of National Occupational Standards that professionals must follow. The learning content of our BTECs is built around these National Occupational Standards, which is why BTECs are recognised as valuable qualifications by the Standard Setting Body (SSB) and/or Sector Skills Council (SSC) for each industry."

In other words, employers strongly influence the syllabus of vocational qualifications, whereas universities influence the syllabus of A-levels.

BTEC stands for Business and Technology Education Council, which is part of Pearson Edexcel exam board.

BTECs are available in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.  

How are BTECs assessed?

BTECs are mainly assessed through assignments based on a real-life work scenario - ie coursework projects.  Some BTECs include tests, but these are taken throughout the course rather than being a block of exams at the end of an A-level course. They are a good option for people who don't do themselves justice in exams.

Pearson Edexcel leaflet: How are BTECs assessed and graded?

What are the different BTEC qualifications?


Qualifications differ by their level (difficulty) and size (time taken to do them).


BTECs can be taken at Level 1 (equivalent to a GCSE grade D-G / 1-3), Level 2 (GCSE grade 4-9 / A*-C), Level 3 (A-level standard) all the way up through Foundation Degree (Level 4), Degree and Postgrad level.

Comparing BTEC To Other Qualifications from Pearson.

Popular BTECs:

  • BTEC Firsts - Level 1 and Level 2 (GCSE-level)
  • BTEC Nationals - Level 3 (A-level standard)
  • BTEC Extended Certificate - same size as 1 A-level.
  • BTEC Subsidiary Diploma - same size as 1 A-level.
  • BTEC Foundation Diploma - one year full-time course, same size as 1.5 A-levels.
  • BTEC Level 3 Diploma - usually same size as 2 A-levels.
  • BTEC Level 3 Extended Diploma - 2-year full-time course, same size as 3 A-levels.


Here is an example of different Level 3 BTECs in Engineering. Click on the image to view full-size.

Can you take BTECs from home education?

There are only a few BTECs which can be taken from home education, because BTECs involve coursework and exam centres won't normally do this for external candidates.  Some that you can take via distance learning are listed below.    

More commonly, home-ed students attend college part-time and may take BTECs there, or when attending college full-time at age 16+. If you take a course at college then it is free.  

BTECs via Distance Learning

BTECs in ICT / Computing via distance learning - see our IT page. Some home-ed students have taken the Level 2 and Level 3 awards.  

There are some more qualifications advertised as 'BTEC Equivalent' via distance learning - see below.  

If you know of any other BTECs available via distance learning, please add them here or leave a comment in the box at the foot of the page.  

What about 'BTEC Equivalents'?

There are some distance learning qualifications which are described as 'BTEC Equivalent' or 'Benchmarked to a BTEC'. These are usually certified by Awarding Bodies (exam boards) which are less well-known.    If the qualification is Ofqual-accredited then you can be confident that it is likely to be accepted at colleges - although it's always sensible to check. The provider will be able to give you its number in the Ofqual register (QAN). It's also helpful to check the level and size of the award so that you know what it's comparable to.  

If the qualification is not Ofqual - accredited, it may still be useful, but do check with any college or employer that you're considering, to ensure they will recognise it.  

Other Vocational Courses available through Distance Learning

Online College of Art and Design Level 2 Art & Design - Ofqual-accredited via ABC Awards, popular with home educators.  

Open Study College offer various vocational qualifications, with assessment, through distance learning.  

See also Alternative Qualifications.      

Are Btecs as good as A-levels?

They're different.  It depends what you want to do with your qualification. A-levels are designed as preparation for university, whereas BTECs are designed as preparation for work, or for a work-related degree.

You can certainly get to university with a Level 3 BTEC, but you will have less choice of unis than someone with A-levels. If you want to go to a very competitive university, or want to study a theoretical, academic subject, then A-levels are a better choice.  A-levels keep your options open more, but they are less immediately useful.

If you suffer badly from exam stress, or have found that you just don't demonstrate what you do well in exams, then vocational qualifications may be a better way to show what you're good at.

Compare syllabuses for BTEC and A-Levels

If you are interested in a subject which can be done as a Btec or A-levels, look at the syllabuses for each.  For example, Btec art compared to A-level art, or Btec IT compared to A-level ICT.  

One of the most well-known Btecs is the Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, often called an Art Foundation Course.  This is a Btec Diploma Level 3 or Level 4.  It focuses on the practical skills needed to do a Fine Art degree, for example.  Students with A-level art don't have as much hands-on experience and often are required to do a Foundation Course before they will be accepted for a Fine Art degree.

If you want to go to university, check the course entry requirements or contact the department to see if a Btec would get you onto the course.  For some courses, eg engineering, they may specify a Level 3 Btec plus A-level maths.  

Note that Level 3 Btecs are accredited as A-level standard. You can also take Btecs at Level 2 (GCSE level) or Level 4 or higher.  

Can you take BTECs and A-levels together?

Plenty of people do, but it depends whether your college can timetable it.

Sometimes people take a BTEC at college, and independently study maths A-level alongside it, especially if taking an engineering BTEC as this gives you the opportunity to apply for engineering degrees.

Others have taken A-levels in college or at sixth form, and then taken a BTEC via evening class at collge.

BTEC Links

Studential Guide to BTec Qualifications and Grades

UCAS - What Are BTEC Diplomas? Good overview of BTEC qualifications, what assessment is like, and what you can do with them.

Numbers of BTEC students at universities rising, but drop-out rate higher - some unis are offering more support for students moving from vocational to academic qualifications.