Helena Knapton and Karen Belgians discuss the challenges of introducing a new BTEC Business programme that provides both employability skills and real business experience.

The Wolf Review of Vocational Education (2011) articulated widespread disaffection with the vocational offering in schools and colleges, particularly in relation to the perception of rigour, the limited breadth of skills young people were developing and the impact on their opportunity to progress into higher education and employment.  As a result of the Wolf Review (2011) vocational qualifications schools and colleges delivered were reviewed, re-written and/ or removed from the offer to students.

Although the suite of BTEC Business qualifications had been widely respected by industry and provided opportunities that allowed students to progress to University level qualifications, before the Wolf Review (2011) they were not immune to the changes which followed and colleagues have been adapting ever since.  However, the ethos and purpose of BTEC Business qualifications have remained the same, i.e. to prepare students for the next stage of their ‘career’, whether that is progression into higher level study or directly into employment by developing an in-depth understanding of business, appropriate literacy skills and apply analytical and problem-solving processes fit for a variety of situations.

What colleagues do, almost without thinking, is to deliver the qualification in a way which suits the context of their teaching as well as the students enrolled on the course, whether it is a high school, academy, FE College or – as in this case – an independent school.  Not only this, but each member of staff brings their own experiences and values to the development and delivery of the qualification.  To try and make this explicit, the following is the outline of an on-line interview conducted with a recently qualified teacher who has been employed to introduce and develop a BTEC Level 3 Business Diploma in an independent school in the North West.

At interview you were asked to explain how you would develop a BTEC qualification that would reflect the ethos of the school and attract students on to the programme.  Can you summarise what your response to this was? 

I loved this question as I was fully able to articulate my motivation for teaching and my passion for the course to be ‘more than a qualification’.  Having previously been a corporate trainer and consultant with a background in coaching, leadership and self-development, I moved into teaching because I believe that pupils should leave School or College having realised their potential with not just academic success but also their skill development.  Employers want key employability skills and real life business knowledge and experience – but students should leave School or College having both?  I said I wanted the new BTEC course to deliver both of these.

Knowing the ethos of the new BTEC qualification and the schools ethos of striving for academic achievement and a passion to see every individual develop as a whole person, the BTEC delivered as “more than a qualification”, could be a perfect fit for the school and attract more pupils. It would complement the existing unique curriculum, which encourages students to develop leadership, academic achievement, teamwork, as well as their overall well-being.

I outlined that the course should be a tailored experience for each unique individual, as this is what would attract students and is not always possible in other institutions with larger cohorts and restricted curriculum time. This would be achieved through each pupil having a Personal Development Plan (PDP) for the whole course which would then inform the delivery of units and the teaching strategies used.  I have successfully used PDP’s with many new starters over the years and a written plan helped people to be accountable and see their own progress and I feel was a large part in staff settling quickly into the company. The PDP’s would involve an initial detailed assessment, with a series of ongoing assessment, target setting, review, and feedback and cover the ‘whole’ student.  This could be communicated to other subject teachers and opportunities for development and support in all lessons e.g. a development area of confidence in speaking in groups, could be broken down into smaller targets of leading in pair work, to small groups, to delivering a fun starter, to effective presentations which is an assessment method in Unit 1.

The PDP’s would then influence the delivery of units, particularly the optional units e.g. ‘Work Experience’ and ‘Pitching for a New Business idea’ to allow for pupils to gain hands on experience tailored around their areas of interest.  A key way to develop their skills would be to provide a range of opportunities such as experiencing running their own business and competing in a national enterprise competition e.g. ‘Tycoon in School’ and possibly involving younger pupils in an Enterprise Event for ‘Managing an Event’, could help promote Enterprise further down the school.

What have been your initial experiences of getting prepared?

Having taught on the previous BTEC and on this new BTEC, I was excited to be delivering the whole of the new course singlehanded – giving me complete creative control.  I quickly realised that this generated so many possibilities and being overwhelmed was a possibility.   A methodical approach was necessary.  The first challenge was getting the school and course registered.  A quick call to Pearson and I was in touch with a really helpful Pearson representative who came to school to meet with us.  She guided us through the set up process, registration, course options, roles and a plan of action was formed.  Registration was relatively straightforward with lots of support provided.

Planning the course was the first major challenge. With some of the GCSE / A Level courses I have taught, a clear Scheme of Work is available and provides a good starting point for a school running the course for a first time.  With the BTEC offering 5 different sized courses the Units can be run to suit the school.   Guidance is provided on synoptic units and possibilities, but there is no ‘one’ recommended way.  The introduction of externally assessed units with fixed dates, brings planning challenges to balance the amount of work for the exam units, but enable a resit opportunity and ensure half of the units are completed at the end of the first year, to enable a reliable predicted grade.  As many schools do, we are potentially running 2 courses simultaneously, the 1 A Level and 2 A Level equivalent, with numbers unknown till the start of term. A hard teaching challenge faced by all teachers, but maybe more so with smaller classes and where low students numbers may mean certain courses may not run, so planning is always subject to change.

My planning was really helped by attending the online video calls run by Pearson and attending a full day face-to-face course in Manchester.  I found the courses to be very informative with opportunities to look at past students’ work and assessments but I left with wanting more time to cover more content and discuss more units.   Colin Leith, the Business and Economics Specialist at Pearson, facilitated one of these courses and offered one-to-one support which I took up further down the line, which was very helpful.   Surprisingly there weren’t many attendees at these opportunities, this could be due to the fact they were listed under the new Enterprise BTEC course rather than the business tab; it was only by chance I happened to find them.

Resources for the course was the next challenge, as the course was launched two years ago and is still relatively new.   I already had some resources from teaching some units and I was already a member of the various Facebook teacher groups which are very helpful and I was able to ask other teachers about optional unit choices.  There is also a drop box of resources in these groups and exemplar work but not the easiest to find specific unit content.    There are Pearson resources for all the units that were published with the course but general feedback is that they are costly and don’t include all the updates.  External providers provide some good resources with excellent feedback but only for some units.    Some CPD course are run for the externally assessed units by external providers – but only in the upcoming academic year, which doesn’t help with planning for September.  There was a ‘Getting ready to teach’ course in July but only in London, although the feedback is good it wasn’t an option due to the cost of £250.

Assessment was the next challenge; the calls helped with this and great resources were provided during and after the Pearson course.  Knowing exactly how to assess students for the internally assessed units and knowing what the externally assessed units are looking for was the next issue.  Once I had my log in for Edexcel I was happy to read the various Examiners’ reports, past assessment papers and exemplar work for the examined units.   Some relief that I didn’t start teaching it two years ago when some of this wasn’t available.  For the internally assessed units, I have decided to use the authorised assignment briefs for the delivery of the course for the first time, which will negate the challenge of writing my own.  When and if I do write my own, I will be using the assignment checking service provided by Pearson to ensure they are fit for purpose.

The biggest challenge I think I will face, is having enough time to deliver what I want to deliver that will develop the students, but cannot be directly correlated to a higher outcome.  This was a challenge in business and is a very real challenge in teaching.    Taking the time to provide opportunities to develop the much needed transferable skills often gets taken up by the academic success e.g. assessment through presentation is a part of the course, but presentation style is often not taken into account – so although agreed a vital skill, it is often left out.  I have heard from a number of teachers that fitting in the amount of guided learning hours for each unit is challenging, particularly for the externally assessed units.  Unit 1 is also felt to be very content heavy but although internally assessed is a good unit to introduce the course.   This challenge of time obviously depends on the number of hours allocated.

There are many unknowns in teaching, making it a particularly challenging vocation, particularly if you are not in post and don’t know the school or the students.  All I can tell myself is what I would tell my students, plan as much as I can, use my support network, constantly review what I am doing and implement changes where necessary.
How are you incorporating the intentions expressed earlier into your planning?

The Personal Development Plan is under design, identifying key skills which can be developed.  This will take the form of an online document that can evolve and develop throughout the course using ‘One Drive’, so progress can be monitored and feedback given.  It will also support with identifying pupils’ skills in the ‘Managing an Event’ and ‘Work Experience’ Units.

I am planning to deliver the ‘Work Experience’ unit as an optional for both courses, as the school agrees that students need to experience a quality work experience placement which they can draw on for the course.   We have looked at starting the unit one lesson a fortnight from after October, so students can go as soon as possible to bring back new skills, knowledge and experience to the course and possibly undertake further placements in holidays where possible.   For the Diploma, I considered the ‘Recruitment and Selection’ unit, seemingly a popular choice but due to my vision for developing employability and enterprise skills we will be delivering the ‘Pitching a Business Idea’ unit, even though few resources are available.  By doing this unit early on in the first year, we are hoping that they can relate this learning to other units, particularly the exam units 2&6 from having experience of running their own business.

I would like to take a more fully synoptic approach combining units where possible, but this is challenging in the first year of delivery, due to meeting exam dates and completing full units in the first year so as to be able to predict a realistic grade.  Definitely something to work towards once fully familiar with the course.


Many thanks to Karen for being so open and honest about both the challenges and solutions that she has expressed, ensuring her students will achieve the academic qualification as well as maintaining the ethos of the BTEC to provide students with experiences that go beyond the provision of assessments.  It also provides an insight into Karen’s own sense of professionalism and personal ethics by delivering ‘more than the qualification’ by incorporating the reasons for coming into teaching and her own business experience into her planning – and her ability to effectively network in order to obtain the support she needs.

Helena Knapton, Edge Hill University. Co-author of forthcoming text ‘Teaching Economics, Business and Enterprise Education’ Routledge

Karen Belgians, RQT, Scarisbrick Hall School.