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Which post-16 qualification?

by | Mar 6, 2024

A levels, IB, BTEC, NVQ and now T levels – the post-16 education landscape is changing. Sally Robinson reports on the academic and vocational options available.

A level or IB?

 The two most common post-16 qualifications in the UK and internationally are A levels and the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP). Some schools offer one or the other and some give the choice of both. So, which is best?

“Students will always maximise their chances of being successful if they choose the best fit for them personally,” says independent careers advisor, Alan Bullock.

In 2023, over 800,000 students took A levels in the UK, making them the most common post-16 qualification. They are also the most traditional route to higher education: easily recognised and understood by universities and well suited to students who are interested in a particular area of study, such as the sciences or humanities.

Across the UK, maths is the most popular A level subject, followed by psychology, biology, chemistry, history, sociology, business studies, art and design, and economics. Students study three or four subjects in depth over two years, with final-year exams determining the grade.

A growing number of students (currently 30,000) do an Extended Project Qualification (EPQ) alongside their A levels. Students undertake independent study to research a project not covered by their other A levels. The EPQ helps develop a range of study skills, including planning and research, and analysis and evaluation.

“A levels continue to hold strong value, particularly in the UK and Commonwealth countries,” says Sarah Berry, director of  www.careerconsultants.co.uk. “The subject specialisation can be advantageous for students who have career aspirations in specific fields.”

The main alternative to A levels is the International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP), studied by fewer students, but rapidly increasing in popularity, especially in international schools. In 2023, 179,000 students took the IBDP globally, 4,850 of them in the UK. Between 2018 and 2022, the number of IB programmes offered worldwide grew by 34% and there are over 8,000 programmes offered across 5,700 schools in 160 countries.

“The IB’s growing popularity is partly due to its international recognition and its focus on developing well-rounded students with critical-thinking skills, global awareness and a strong academic foundation,” says Sarah Berry.

Educators rate the IBDP for its breadth of study. Students study a range of subjects including maths, sciences, languages and the arts. The emphasis is on inter-disciplinary study, independent research and critical thinking. Three subjects are studied at higher level and three at standard, alongside an extended essay and a course in the theory of knowledge. IBDP students also complete a programme of creativity, action and service.

So, which is better – A levels or IBDP? “There’s no better or worse, they are just different,” says David Hawkins, founder of the University Guys, a consultancy for all aspects of global university applications. “The pros and cons are pretty simple – breadth vs depth. The IB’s breadth is particularly useful when seeking university admission to countries that have their own baccalaureate-style high school qualification.”

The future will see both systems co-existing, says Sarah Berry. “They both have unique strengths.”

Vocational qualifications

The post-16 vocational education landscape is in the process of reform. T levels, the new “gold standard” technical qualification, were introduced in 2020. Over the next few years, some existing level 3 Alternative Academic Qualifications (AAQs), including some BTECs, will be defunded where they overlap with T level courses.

In October 2023, the Prime Minister also announced his long-term plan to introduce the Advanced British Standard qualification for 16-19 year olds, which would combine the best of A levels and T levels into a baccalaureate-style qualification.

 (BTECs) Business and Technology Education Council

 BTECs are vocational, career-based qualifications that can be studied at school or college and are the most widely recognised qualification for entrance to higher education after A levels. They are studied in some international schools and recognised in 70 countries worldwide and by most universities.

Some BTEC subjects are being defunded over the next few years if their subject matter overlaps with T levels, but courses that do not have a T level equivalent will remain. Over the next two years, T levels like finance, accounting, engineering and manufacturing will be rolled out in England and BTECs in similar subjects will be discontinued.

There are currently over 2,000 BTEC subject choices across 16 sectors, ranging from business, enterprise and law, construction, hospitality, and public and protective services. They can be studied at various levels, including GCSE and degree, but the BTEC National level 3 – equivalent to one A level – is the best known.

Where A levels focus on academic study, BTECs are about vocational learning and suit students with a clear idea of career path. They are often assessed by coursework, which suits some students better.

Are BTECs easier? Not necessarily, but they are more practical rather than academic. Some students study both at the same time to get the best of both worlds.

“Progression from BTECs to vocational degree courses at university has always been strong,” says careers advisor, Alan Bullock. “But students are also well-prepared if they choose to go directly into employment or apprenticeships.”

T levels

T levels are the government’s new technical and vocational qualification introduced as a practical alternative to A levels. The two-year course starts post-GCSE and is equivalent to three A levels. At the moment, 18 T levels are available, with more being rolled out from September 2024. T levels are not available internationally, but the plan is to introduce them in the future.

T levels are different from other vocational courses, like BTECs, because they have been developed in conjunction with employers. They combine classroom learning with practical experience through a 45-day industry placement: 80% of content is classroom-based.

Unlike other vocational qualifications, T level subjects have been developed to address skills gaps in the current job market. Employers including IBM, Fujitsu and GSK have helped design course content to make sure that these qualifications are relevant.

T levels currently available include building services engineering for construction, digital business services, legal services, education and childcare, and finance. Following completion, students can either go on to higher education (T levels come with UCAS tariff points) or enter the workplace. For example, a distinction at T level is equivalent to AAA at A level, while a merit is equivalent to BBB. In 2023, 1,830 T-level students applied to higher education and 97% received at least one offer.

By 2024, all T levels will have been delivered for one year. From September 2024, any 16-19 education provider can offer the qualification.

The strength of T levels lies in their alignment with industry needs. “If a student wants a career in a healthcare profession, for example, T levels can provide a brilliant starting point,” says Alan Bullock. “It gives them invaluable experience in the realities and expectations of working in NHS settings.”

IB Career-Related Programme (IBCP)

The IBCP incorporates the values of the IB in a unique programme designed for students seeking more career-related learning. Bridging the IB’s academic courses, the IBCP provides students with a combination of academic and practical skills, and leads to further and higher education, apprenticeships or employment.

The IBCP’s ‘core’ emphasises experiential learning organised around four key areas: personal and professional skills, service learning, a reflective project and language development. Through approved career-related study, it is designed to enhance student’s personal and interpersonal development, as well as offer a flexible international educational framework that allows schools to meet the needs, backgrounds and contexts of students.

Advanced Placement (AP)

APs are exam-based, US qualifications. They give students the opportunity to study academic, university-level courses while still at school to prepare for tertiary education. The qualifications are recognised by both US and UK universities, can be studied anywhere in the world and used for university admission in over 60 countries.

The learning style is similar to university with students carrying out independent study. Some students study AP alongside the IBDP: where the IB is inquiry-based, AP courses offer depth of content in a particular subject area.

Cambridge Technicals

 This is an alternative UK vocational qualification offered by Oxford, Cambridge and RSA Examinations (OCR) where level 3 is A level-equivalent. Similar to BTECS, Cambridge Technicals are designed for students 16-plus who have an interest in a particular sector. They can be studied alongside other courses or on their own. Subjects include business, performing arts, digital media, engineering, sport and physical activity. They can be used to proceed to higher education or to enter the workforce. With the introduction of T levels, some Cambridge Technicals will be defunded after 2024.

Core Maths

The equivalent of an AS level, Core Maths is aimed at students who are not studying A level maths, but who need some knowledge to help with other subjects or in future study.

National Vocational Qualifications (NVQ)

This is a practical, work-related qualification available in 1,000 subjects that can be taken at school or while working. They can be taken at different levels, where NVQ level 3 is equivalent to two A levels. There are several awarding bodies, including City and Guilds.

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