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Tuesday 13 March 2018

As part of the Year of Engineering, first-year mechanical engineering student George Montague explores alternative paths into engineering – and how his own route through the BTEC played to his strengths.

Engineering is a career with such a wide variety of opportunity. No one ever chooses it for the same reason. I never expected to find myself upon this path, I hadn’t really considered it an option; until I was selected to do the ‘Morrisby careers test’ (which is designed to show what strengths a student might have). This test showed me that I had perception and problem-solving capabilities – two qualities any engineer must have.

What struck me the most about the path towards engineering, is that I didn’t need A-Levels to get there. This was revealed to me after one of my GCSE science teachers told me that there was something else I could do reach my goal. Something called a BTEC – specifically, in my case, a Level 3 BTEC Extended Diploma in Engineering.

BTECs are different to A-Levels; examinations are not always required to complete a BTEC (and weren’t for mine). Some BTEC diplomas, like mine, are 100% coursework.

You might be thinking ‘no exams? That sounds easy!’. Yes and no. Since my BTEC was 100% coursework, there were no exams (thank goodness); but that meant I had to focus on every single piece of course work, as slacking off on even one assignment meant that my end-of-year grades would suffer.

In a BTEC, assignments come in thick and fast. You must be prepared to finish one, then immediately start on the next, as assignments will overlap (this is inevitable). For example: by the end of my first term, I had already completed an entire unit of work, whilst keeping up with assignments from seven other units.

The second major difference between BTEC and A-levels, I discovered near the end of my first year; how a BTEC trains you in a very different (and in my opinion more fulfilling) way than A-Levels can. While A-Level subjects are a continuation of what you may have done at GCSE level, when you pick a BTEC that you want to do, you aren’t picking subjects, you’re picking an industry.

Sure, BTECs still have units like maths or physics, but these are applied to the industry you want to work in (such as engineering). In the case of my engineering BTEC, the units I studied in the first year were electronical principles (two units’ worth), health and safety in the workplace, professional and study skills, design, CAD (computer-aided design), mechanical principles (physics) and maths. Every single one of these topics linked to engineering in one way or another.

Another difference is how much more freedom there was. With A-Levels, a lot of people continue going to the same school they took GCSEs at, Monday to Friday, 9am to 3pm. BTEC courses are very different. In my first year of BTEC, I was only needed in college for two and a half days, so I could work on assignments the other half of the week.

On top of that, because BTEC courses are less commonly available than A-levels, there wasn’t one offered at the schools in my town; I had to travel by train to get to college.

This, together with the freedom of organising my own assignment work for two and a half days each week, provided a much greater experience of being independent (something a lot of A-level students haven’t experienced as much before university).

While it’s not for everyone, taking a BTEC course has done so much more for me than A-levels could have. At the end of my BTEC I received a triple Distinction (the BTEC equivalent of three A grades at A-Level) and offers from all three of the universities that I applied to. I feel that being able to take a BTEC has done so much to prepare me for the life I’m currently living at Solent Uni as well as my prospects of having a career in engineering design – a career I might never otherwise have been able to reach.