Is handheld and spoon fed BTEC the sort of science assessment we want for our pupils?

Marilyn and Susan having fun

Running a site like this means I get a constant stream of emails from teachers who are teaching BTEC Science.  I’m fortunate that I also get out and about to visit lots of schools in my locality, and talk to many teachers that I meet through the ASE.  I have spent time working with schools to deliver BTEC science in such a way that the assessment is useful.  It should give students a chance to demonstrate their skills and knowledge in a vocational aspect, testing their science ability rather than their memory (or literacy) skills.


Let’s be honest.  We all know why BTEC is so popular.  Sure the teaching/learning style may suit some of the learners enrolled on the course, but the main reason BTEC is popular is that it offers two easy grade C’s.  Under pressure from leadership teams (who are in turn under pressure from government targets) schools have pushed many students through who fail to get grade C in traditional GCSE examinations.  If they do the work for BTEC they are guaranteed to get the grades.


What annoys me is schools who spoon feed students the answers, who reduce the work to tick lists of information to be presented.  In my opinion there is a subtle difference between “Create a TV advert to advocate the benefits of renewable and non-renewable energy” and “Make note on renewable energy”.  For many students now (especially the ones who BTEC is targeted at) ‘make notes’ is translated to ‘copy out of a book’, and no actual learning or understanding takes place (in fact quite often no teaching takes place either!).  I’ve seen schools set up BTEC factory days (they call them catch up days) where they pour in staff support, and students sit and write with text books (no teaching or practical work).   I’ve even see BTEC sessions where the teachers more or less tell the students what to write – can you imagine this happening in a GCSE examination?


Is this the kind of assessment we want for our learners?  Of course Edexcel loves BTEC – charging  £70+ a student with the school doing all of the work (setting & marking assignments), and the fees are paid up-front so they are laughing all the way to the bank.   It’s a shame that BTEC Science has fallen outside the remit of the Wolf Report reviewing vocational education, regardless Edexcel continue to delude themselves about the worth of this qualification…

From Edexcel “Professor Wolf stresses that Science was outside the remit of her Review, and will be encompassed by the National Curriculum Review which is currently underway. We know that BTEC Applied Science has become a valuable approach for thousands of students and offers a valid progression route through to A Level Applied Science.”

I live in hope that the curriculum review brings a change in the way science is assessed, a move away from vocational qualifications meaning copying from books, and one where examinations test science ability rather than memory and literacy skills?


Do you agree with me – come and leave me a comment (click on the title above if you receive this by email) and then fill in the boxes at the bottom of the page.

Image ©freeloosedirt on Flickr

Published by Rob Butler

Ex-science teacher, ex-school leader and full-time geek.

7 replies on “Is handheld and spoon fed BTEC the sort of science assessment we want for our pupils?”

  1. I loved the flexibility that BTEC science gives or could give to the curriculum. Your imagination is the only limitation. However, you have to question methods of some teachers when a student who you imagine would not get more than a C in a GCSE can leave with a distinction grade in BTEC science. Textbooks are being written to include the information that matches the BTEC spec and it all means that it is easier for BTEC to be a copying qualification. Science teachers only have themselves to blame, but we have undermined what could have been the best qualification we have been given.

    I am interested in your comment “one where examinations test science ability rather than memory and literacy skills”. I agree that GCSE is like this. Even for A* students it seems that they can’t get by understanding science, they need to know the exact words to use.

    I have taught AQA core science and OCR gateway since 2006. The first time I went through AQA I bought into “how science works” what a mistake… now I teach students how to pass and exam and a formulaic way to complete coursework. Better results.

    What doesn’t help is that the qualification that I consider to be the right balance, Additional Applied Science, is effectively sidelined by the EBacc. And it is not as easy to manipulate as the BTEC. It is an engaging qualification that is also hard. But why should the people who make decisions look into what they are doing before they do it.

  2. I agree with your comments entirely. Also I can’t see the point of pupils completing a BTEC science if it isn’t going to contribute to the baccalauteate? I have decided to stop teaching BTEC science after our current Y11’s leave. If the course is not considered on equal par with the ‘core’ ‘additional’ and ‘single sciences’ the I believe the pupils are as well off getting a lower grade in these recognised courses. I also believe that it enables us teachers to concentrate on the style needed for the pupils to do well.
    Along with other members of my department I have spent so much time on setting up the BTEC only for it to be changed last year.

  3. It seems such a shame that the idea of BTec has been used like this. The problem comes, for any such ‘exam’ where teachers have an input, when you realise that not ‘supporting’ your students means they are at a disadvantage. Of course we all want the best for our students, but will it really benefit them to have a piece of paper which makes claims for their ability so at odds with the reality?

    Perhaps a good analogy would be driving tests. The DVLA would never take a good write-up from a driving instructor as a substitute for passing the practical, but that’s effectively what BTec is. As well as assessing the pupil, it ends up assessing how much time and effort the teachers are prepared to put in.

  4. I’ve not taught BTEC but I teach OCR Nationals and will continue to do so. The problem with the BTEC and Nationals is not the course but the equivalence. For some of my students they are enjoying science and achieving possibly for the first time. For certain students and for certain careers this is the ideal course. But its probably not worth 2 or 4 GCSEs. If they made it worth 1 GCSE possibly if you got merit or distinction then I think bizarrely it would be worth more in the eyes of colleges and employers. As people have commented above much of the material is excellent and as long as you and everyone understands that these courses are courses of completion not courses of knowledge they have a place in the curriculum.
    The style of assessment (collecting a portfolio or work) is a common assessment style for many courses in “life long learning” even as teachers for courses/performance management/threshold the collection of evidence in a portfolio will become increasingly an important skill.
    Even when its confirmed that BTEC and OCR Nationals will not fit into the eBac I will continue to push for our school to offer it. For certain students who want a certain style of course. The Wolf Report suggests that vocational courses should be useful for 20% of students and though I think it could be a bit more than that, that seems like a good place to start. I don’t think targets of 100% of students getting eBacs is intended.
    So I’m off to get the stuff ready to make ginger beer with my OCR National class tomorrow and after that I’ll do some forensic science and my classes and I will have a great time doing science.

  5. My son is being pushed on this course by his school.I would rather he achieved a lower grade in gcse than switch now,and after reading all the above comments that is what we will do!

    1. I think the key is to find out about the teaching of the subject (from your son or the school). Some schools are extremely diligent when it comes to BTEC and to others it is just some easy grades for sink groups.

  6. seen too many academies use this to boost results and you get criticised if you teach in an honest way. these schools then jump up the league table. even been told by a hod that they were “teaching” the BTEC to achieve this – also been on the other end and had kids in an A level class and were utterly clueless – just gearing them to fail

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