Event details

An outline of the work of National Educational Opportunities (NEON) ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group

Thursday, 19 November 2020

Formed in 2018, this Group focuses on sharing ideas and existing practice around supporting BTEC students. It also provides a platform for research being undertaken in this space, with a view to implementing a more joined up approach across the sector.  Over the past year, we have developed a set of ‘Guiding Principles’ for academics and outreach practitioners working with BTEC learners at each stage of the ‘Student Lifecycle’ as detailed below:


Alex Blower – Southern Universities Network – ‘Championing fair admissions practices for BTEC students’


One of the guiding tenets of the NEON ‘Supporting BTEC Students Working Group’ is to champion fair admissions practices by universities. The group contends that BTEC students, who are often first in their family to attend university, should not have to dig for information pertaining to course entry requirements or face additional barriers. It argues that BTEC qualifications should feature as prominently as A levels in prospectuses, and websites, as they are the second most common qualification used for university entrance in the UK.

The group campaigns to make entry requirements/eligibility criteria clear and accessible to BTEC students at all UK Higher Education Providers, including Russell Group institutions and those with higher entry tariffs. BTEC learners should be able to establish their eligibility for an undergraduate degree quickly and easily, without the need for them to make further enquiries. If BTEC qualifications aren’t accepted due to course content, the group argues that this should be clearly indicated. The group believes that uniformity and transparency in admissions practices across the sector is a prerequisite to equitable access to Higher Education for BTEC students.


Alex Blower is currently an employee within the outreach team at the University of Portsmouth. Having spent the last 10 years working in widening participation, Alex has worked for numerous universities and Uni Connect partnerships across the UK. In 2016, Alex began his doctoral research, which focuses on the development of white working-class males’ expectations toward their future in education and work. Prior to his role at the University of Portsmouth, Alex worked as a Further Education Project Leader for the Southern Universities Network, managing a team of 10 Progression Mentors working in Colleges of Further Education across Hampshire and Dorset. Alex is a regular blogger and vlogger, hosting the Edu Detective YouTube channel (www.youtube.com/edudetective), and writing blogs on issues relating to education and inequality for organisations such as WonkHE and the Higher Education Policy Institute.


Becky Foster – University of East Anglia – ‘Conducting meaningful outreach activity with BTEC students in schools and colleges’


One of the biggest barriers to vocational students entering higher education is that pre-entry activity run by Recruitment and Outreach professionals is targeted towards A level students, rather than being focused on their needs. The pre-entry guiding principle champions the need for staff working with student’s pre-entry to be inclusive of vocational learners.

 This is especially important as learners studying vocational qualifications are often from the most underrepresented backgrounds in Higher Education (HE).  Therefore, an inclusive approach is paramount, especially from a Widening Participation perspective.

Through raising awareness of the important nuances between BTEC and A level learners such as curriculum, learning style, learner identity and learning environment, important changes in promotional language, bespoke events and CPD for college staff can be put in place. The group hopes this will culminate in more vocational learners being aware of HE as an opportunity to them and for practitioners to be equipped to provide appropriate advice and guidance to support their progression.


Rebecca has worked in Widening Participation (WP) for the past 4 years. Working firstly in a mentoring position with students from WP backgrounds, then within an advisory capacity in a college and finally as on Outreach Officer. Most of these roles have been working for the University of East Anglia to improve social mobility within the Norfolk and Suffolk regions. 

Due to her work predominantly with BTEC/Vocational learners in her advisory role in the college, Rebecca now specialises in working with BTEC students in colleges to help them to progress to Higher Education and advising internal members of staff on how to improve opportunities for vocational learners to aid transition when they attend the university. Rebecca has been a Vice-Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since 2019.


Becca Sykes – University of Leeds – ‘Supporting the transition and student success of BTEC students at university’


Research findings show that BTEC students entering university are more likely to be from a widening participation background, have lower progression and retention rates, be at different starting points in terms of academic preparedness and understanding assessment expectations in HE, and that a sense of belonging is one of the biggest challenges facing this cohort.

Our third guiding principle, focusing on transition, attainment and retention, uses the core principles of identify, evaluate, share and embed, to create an environment where BTEC students succeed during their studies and beyond.

Valuable, informative and engaging conversations in the group meetings and across conference sessions, has allowed open discussions about the barriers facing this cohort of students, enabling us to recognise how practitioners can be instrumental in their own institutions to help overcome these challenges. 


Becca Sykes has worked in practitioner and management roles in Higher Education since 2001, starting her career at Leeds Beckett University and moving to the University of Huddersfield to lead and implement the Aimhigher West Yorkshire Associates Scheme. Since 2012, Becca has worked at the University of Leeds, where she has management responsibility for leading outreach teams to deliver and achieve on the University’s Access and Participation Plan and the Access and Student Success Strategy; she also leads on the non-continuation strand of the Student Success remit. 

Becca is an active member of the NEON ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group and has co-facilitated workshops to raise the profile of the group, encourage discussion around the BTEC agenda and share best practice amongst fellow practitioners.


Chris Bayes – Lancaster University – ‘Understanding the needs of BTEC students through engagement with research’


There is a lack of effective knowledge exchange between policy makers, practitioners and researchers active in the field of widening participation (WP).  With reference to the progression, retention and success of students accessing university via a BTEC pathway, we have identified gaps in terms of knowledge transfer between practitioners and teachers working with applicants prior to university, and academics working with these students when they are at university.

Some traditional universities have been guilty of reinforcing a deficit model perception of BTEC students. For many degree programmes, BTEC students’ prior learning has better prepared them for the progression into HE.   By supporting the development of reflective practitioners across the sector, our Working Group is ensuring that staff are able to support today’s increasingly diverse student population, regardless of their prior academic background.


Chris has worked in the field of Widening Participation (WP) since 2007; holding practitioner and managerial roles in WP teams at a number of universities and previously led a number collaborative partnerships based within NW England.  Chris is a research active practitioner and his research paper ‘Blurred Boundaries – Encouraging greater dialogue between Student Recruitment & Widening Participation’ appeared in the Forum for Access & Continuing Education (FACE)’s 2019 Conference publication.

Chris has been an Executive Board member of the National Education Opportunities Network (NEON) since 2015 and has acted as Chair of NEON’s ‘Supporting BTEC students’ Working Group since this was established in 2018. 

Our session will provide an overview of each ‘Guiding Principle’ with some case-study examples to illustrate how these can aid academics and practitioners in supporting BTEC students at each stage of their educational journey.

Network: The Student Access and Experience Network
Date(s): Thursday, 19 November 2020
Times: 11:00 - 12:30
Signup Deadline: Wednesday, 18 November 2020
Location: Online event, link will be provided
Lunch Provided: No
Spaces Left: Unlimited
Prices: Members: Free, Guests: Free
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