BTECs Soar From Coast to Coast

It's mid-May, and students at Lytham St. Annes Technology and Performing Arts School on England's northwest coast are busily preparing for the term-ending school play - a modern adaptation of George Orwell's classic Animal Farm.

"This pig is not for turning," says one character, a playful reference to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's famous quotation: "The lady's not for turning."

More than 200 miles to the south, in Exeter, trainee aircraft engineers are admiring an emerald-green field that will soon be the site of a new 5,000-square-meter training academy for Flybe Ltd., Europe's largest regional airline, based in Exeter, that flies to 66 destinations in 13 European countries including France, Germany and Spain.

For a longer version of this article, please click here

"You'll be able to certify one of these as fit to fly," Simon Witts, Flybe's Director of Safety, Quality and Training, tells the trainees, pointing to a 118-seat Embraer 195 jet landing at the Exeter airport, adjacent to Flybe's headquarters, on a clear but blustery spring day on Britain's southwest coast.

The two educational experiences both reflect the increasing popularity, and utility, of the BTEC qualifications offered by Edexcel, part of Pearson Plc. From schools to colleges, in the U.K. and elsewhere around the world, BTECs are helping to raise performance and enthusiasm for work-related education. They are engaging young people interested in particular careers, including media, engineering and hospitality, and they provide timetable flexibility for students interested in other academic disciplines.

Students in a BTEC performing arts course at Lytham St. Annes perform in a production on cyber bullying

Students in a BTEC performing arts course at Lytham St. Annes perform in a production on cyber bullying

Students taking BTECs are engaged in active learning, in which they learn by doing. Teachers assess BTEC students continually on what they currently can do, rather than testing what they know many months later through an end-of-course exam, and such demonstrated ability is welcomed by employers.

Growing BTEC enrollments

BTEC enrolments have soared from 290,000 in 2004 to 775,000 in 2008, and are expected to top 1 million this year. The fastest growth has been in U.K. schools, where BTECs are now offered in more than 2,500 schools, up from 1,400 in 2005-2006, as alternatives to GCSEs (General Certificate of Secondary Education) qualifications.

BTECs are also a major part of the curriculum at colleges in Britain, for students age 16 to 19. About 450 U.K. further education colleges now offer BTECs, including Exeter College, which is a partner with Flybe and Edexcel in a four-year programme launched last year to train new aircraft engineers.

BTECs are a proven mechanism for supporting the transition from education to work for young people, which is a subject of great interest to British policymakers. The U.K. government is investing in a new Diploma system for 14-19 year olds that comprises a mix of classwork and hands-on experience.

"BTECs prepare students for the world of work, because their learning through the BTECs complements their academic qualifications," says Jerry Jarvis, managing director of Edexcel. "The more academic students benefit from BTECs because they provide a blend of learning. BTECs teach kids how to be people: they learn about legal issues like employment law, how to undertake skills for their sector of choice and how to deal with statistics. And for the non-academic students, it gives them some space to be successful."

At Lytham St. Annes, which serves nearly 1,800 students ages 11 to 18, "we introduced a whole range of BTECs beginning in September 2007, in 10 different subjects," says deputy headteacher Cherry Ridgway. "We were looking for a situation where students were more responsible for their own learning."

That's exactly what's happened, and Ms. Ridgway credits the BTEC expansion with raising the percentage of students achieving A* to C success rates in five or more GCSE and equivalent from 59% three years ago to well over 90% this year.

Flying High at Flybe

At colleges in Britain, for students age 16-19, BTECs are often run as part of innovative training programmes developed by employers - and the Flybe programme certainly fits that innovative bill.

"Edexcel were quite proactive, saying we want to shape BTECs working with Exeter College," says Flybe's Mr. Witts. "We needed a programme that develops not only the practical skills, but also the brainpower to be able to say an aircraft like that (pointing to a twin-engine 195 model jet) is fit to fly. People will come out of this programme with a £31,000-a-year job guaranteed as a licensed aircraft engineer."

Work on the new training academy is planned to start in summer 2009 and is due to be completed by April 2010.

Flybe's Simon Witts points to artist representations of the airline's new 5

Flybe's Simon Witts points to artist representations of the airline's new 5,000-square-foot training academy, opening next year as part of a project involving BTEC qualifications

Under the four-year programme, trainees spend their first two years studying BTEC courses at Exeter College, in order to provide the academic background they will need in order to certify planes as airworthy. The second two years will be based at the new academy, working on aircraft that will include Flybe's twin-engine 195 jet aircraft made by Embraer in Brazil and twin-turboprop Dash Q400 aircraft made by Canada's Bombardier.

"You read a book and then you see an aircraft part and pick it up - it really helps you understand it," says trainee Paul  Atterbury, age 21, who moved to Exeter from his home in Manchester to attend the programme. He has long been an aviation aficionado: "I live two miles from Manchester Airport, and could hear the planes from my garden."

His father, retired pensions specialist Laurie Atterbury, says the programme suits his son well: "He's much more studious than he ever was before, he's really fired up. The feedback we get from Exeter is that it's all very professional. He's always been mechanically minded so it's very good for him. Paul's really found his feet with the Flybe programme."