For young people looking at their post-GCSE options, there can sometimes be an assumption that they will stay on in education and – in England at least – study A levels. Seen as the academic gold standard by many, A levels can often hog the limelight, meaning young people might not know that there are in fact other options with different delivery and assessment approaches. In the A Level Alternatives blog series, we’ll be having a quick look at some of the other qualifications on offer. This week, it’s BTEC Nationals.

What are they?

BTECs were introduced in the 1980s by the Business and Technology Education Council. You can actually study a BTEC at a range of levels – from the equivalent to a GCSE right up to a foundation degree – but today we’ll be looking at the level 3 qualifications now known as BTEC Nationals. Despite being equivalent to A levels, the ethos behind the BTEC Nationals is to provide a more vocational approach to learning and to help students to develop “the specialist knowledge, practical skills and understanding they need to progress along their chosen learning and career paths.”

Around 295,000 students completed a BTEC Nationals qualification in 2017/18 in the UK, so it is clearly a popular choice amongst young adults. However, despite the different approaches, Nationals and A levels are often taken in combination with one another, so by no means do you have to choose between the two!

How do they work?
The delivery of BTEC Nationals is complex when compared to A levels, where you simply pick a combination of individual subjects to study over the course of a couple of years. In fact, there are 5 different Nationals qualifications: Certificate, Extended Certificate, Foundation Diploma, Diploma and Extended Diploma. These qualifications are often talked about in terms of the number of A levels they are equivalent to, as shown in the table below. Nationals can be taken over 1 or 2 years, and a short course completed in 1 year can be extended to a longer alternative during a second year of study.

NB There is currently a reform happening within the Nationals, which means that you might also see the qualifications called by their old names. These are given in the table in brackets.

BTEC Nationals Qualifications:

Qualification (alternative name) A Level equivalence
Extended Diploma 3 A Levels
Diploma 2 A Levels
Foundation Diploma (90-credit diploma) 1.5 A Levels
Extended Certificate (subsidiary diploma) 1 A Level
Certificate 0.5 A Levels

As you can see above, the Extended Diploma is the most valuable: it is also the most common choice. Logically, it requires the longest time to achieve. It is completed as a 2-year course, and not normally alongside other qualifications. The second most popular option is the Extended Certificate taken in conjunction with A levels.
Although the qualifications are different in terms of size, they all have a similar basic structure. Students study a series of subject-specific topics in a skills-based, practical way. They are assessed on each unit via assignments, and the combination of these results gives the overall grade.

What subjects can I study?
There are around 50 subject areas to choose from, with many offering a choice of units within the course itself. The subjects available in Nationals are mostly vocational, in areas such as science, engineering and performing arts. A range of new and updated subjects have been introduced from 2016, including Uniformed Protective Service, Applied Law, and Travel & Tourism. NB Not all subjects are available in all 5 qualifications.

How will I be assessed?
Assessments are taken at the end of each unit within a qualification. These are mostly conducted and marked internally, but external versions have recently been made available. Internal assessments are set by the school or college and consist of subject-relevant assignments, not written exams. You will have to complete the assignments individually, with minimal input from teachers. Once an assignment is submitted and feedback is given, it may be possible to tweak and resubmit your work, if not retake the assessment. Each assessment is graded using points and assigned a pass grade of Pass, Merit or Distinction. The overall grade of your qualification is calculated using the individual unit scores, and this is converted into a pass grade of Pass, Merit, Distinction or Distinction*. The longer qualifications may use a combination of multiple grades(as shown below in the UCAS tariff table).

What are they worth?
In the last 12 years, the number of students with a BTEC entering universities in the UK has doubled to over 100,000; accounting for a quarter of all successful applicants. This suggests that despite the more vocational aspects of the BTEC qualifications, universities also recognise their academic merit; especially when taken at the same time as A levels. Almost all universities in the UK will consider applicants with BTECs, including Oxford and Cambridge, although accompanying A levels are often required. The equivalence with A levels (see table above) is taken into account by UCAS, who offer tariff points according to this scale, shown in the table below

As for employers, the vocational and skills-based outlook of the BTEC Nationals should stand young jobseekers in good stead. After completing a Nationals qualification, you should be able to showcase important employability skills: both general (such as time management) and specific to the subject you studied.

BTEC Nationals UCAS tariff points

Qualification (alternative name) Grade range UCAS points
Extended Diploma PPP – D*D*D* 48 – 168
Diploma PPP – D*D* 32 – 112
Foundation Diploma PPP – D*D* 24 – 84
Extended Certificate PPP – D* 16 – 56
Certificate PPP – D* 8 – 28

A Levels UCAS tariff points

Grade UCAS points
A* 56
A 48
B 40
C 32
D 24
E 16


The growing popularity and availability of BTECs in general shows the Nationals are a valid choice for students. Their skills-based learning perspective – as well as the more practical approach to assessment – make BTEC Nationals a vocational equivalent to A levels which is well worth considering.