At 16, students first decide how they want to specialise their studies. Sarah Lambie speaks to teachers and students about what a BTEC entails and how it could further your career, whether you want to work in theatre or not
How young is too young to specialise? According to Liverpool Media Academy co-founder Richard Wallace, if you’re serious about a career in the performing arts, you can’t start too soon.
Wallace is also principal of the further and higher education institution, which has 700 students in its music and performing arts base on Hope Street in Liverpool, and in 2020 will open to another 250 students in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Students at LMA can work towards BTEC Extended Diplomas in Acting or Musical Theatre (among others), between 16-18, and then go on to degree courses there as well.
A BTEC Extended Diploma has a value in UCAS points equivalent to three A levels, so students who embark on one are setting off on a path of intensive full-time professional training.
Wallace says: “BTECs give a young person a fantastic opportunity to take the first step as close to industry as possible. They get daily training in something that they’re passionate about and they love.”
“A BTEC is a vocational course in which a student will study 18 units over a year, each with a minimum of four learning outcomes – there’s always a written element, so while people think it’s an easy option it’s certainly not. At LMA, it’s a full-time course that offers 25 hours a week training. If you’re on a musical theatre BTEC, you’ll have your singing, dance, and acting units, but then you’ll also do performing arts business units – so it is a broad spectrum of understanding across the industry as well as honing and developing your training.”
Wallace’s experience of auditioning students for degree courses has shown him that a BTEC makes a demonstrable difference to students’ prospects. “You can see who’s studied a vocational course day in day out for the last two years and who’s been doing A levels and maybe just gone to a dance class on a Saturday,” he says. “If you’re serious about wanting to be a performer, you have to get on the path at 16, I don’t think there’s any benefit in saying: ‘Well I’ll just do my A level, and then I’ll see how I’m doing at 18’ – you’re two years behind in your training and that can really make the difference.”
Is there a danger, though, that students could be putting all their eggs in one basket at a young age? Wallace is adamant that specialising from 16 needn’t close any doors: “Because of the plethora of units that you cover, the skills students gain are transferable,” he says, “and your son or daughter just spent two years pursuing their dream and feeling empowered and motivated every day, that’s worth more than anything, and will take them towards any path they want in their life. They won’t all become performers, but if they come out with a triple distinction, they’ve gained the highest UCAS points you can get, which can technically get you to any university in the country.”
Cameron Runyeard-Hunt has first-hand experience of this: having studied for a BTEC Level 3 Diploma in Performing Arts between the ages of 16-18, he is now in his first year at Bath Spa University, studying drama and history. “When I was applying for Bath Spa, the offer I was given was a distinction in performing arts, a C in history and a C in sociology,” he explains – something he was well on track to achieve since his performing arts qualification was worth the equivalent of two A levels.
“For our final project we did Into the Woods Jr, which we directed and stage-managed – and we did children’s theatre in year one: we had to arrange which primary schools we went to, what the set was going to be, and so on.
“It absolutely set me up for the course I’m now studying at university: originally I was going to do theatre studies at a different school, but there weren’t enough people for that course and I wanted to carry on with drama, so I stayed and did performing arts BTEC, and I’m glad I picked that because it was more interactive – whereas theatre studies would have been more theory.”
Runyeard-Hunt is a good example of a student whose BTEC set them up with transferable skills, but who doesn’t wish to pursue a practical career in the theatre: “I would like to do a PGCE, hopefully at Bath Spa,” he says, “and then I would go into teaching either history or drama.”
Caitlin Bradley is studying for a BTEC Extended Certificate in Performing Arts alongside English Literature and Art A levels at the Clarendon Academy in Trowbridge. She says: “I want to take it further – I want to go to a university or conservatoire and study acting.”
For Bradley, the ability to take a BTEC alongside other A levels has allowed her to tailor her studies to a particular interest in text: “I wanted to do English literature alongside it,” she says, “because I found it beneficial in the sense you study plays in detail, and it aids drama so well.”
Performing arts courses are many and varied, and the variety of levels for study mean you can take them in combination with other courses. For a practical, vocational study of theatre, they’re certainly a strong and popular option.
Tech Awards: a qualification in performing arts, equivalent to one GCSE, and included in KS4 performance measures.
BTEC Firsts: Available in four sizes (from one to four GCSEs), but not included in performance measures.
BTEC Nationals: available in Performing Arts, Production Arts, Performing Arts Practice* and Production Arts Practice*, can be taken to various levels as follows:
Certificate: equivalent to one AS level (not available for *)
Extended Certificate: equivalent to one A level (not available for *)
Foundation Diploma: equivalent to 1.5 A levels
Diploma: equivalent to two A levels (not available for *)
Extended Diploma: equivalent to three A levels
BTEC Higher Nationals: post-18 qualifications up to the equivalent of first or second year of a degree (depending on the institution).
There are more than 1,400 educational establishments in the UK offering BTEC performing arts at various levels. Some more from around the country include Newcastle College; D16 Performing Arts College, Norfolk; Chichester College; Loughborough College; School of Creative and Visual Performing Arts, Neath; the Clarendon Academy, Trowbridge; and Esher College in Surrey.
For more training advice go to:thestage.co.uk/advice/