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In this article we look at the new RQF BTEC Level 3 Extended Diplomas in Engineering, in particular the larger, mandatory microcontroller (MCU) unit, which all learners will have to undertake from 2020.


The RQF version of the BTEC Level 3 Extended Diplomas in Engineering (the “RQF Qualification”) was released for first teaching in September 2016. The first cohort of learners completed the new RQF Qualification in the summer of 2018.

The RQF Qualification is designed to replace its QCF predecessor. And all centres currently teaching the QCF version of the BTEC Level 3 Extended Diplomas in Engineering will be required to move to the RQF version in 2020.

One of the units in the RQF Qualification which has caused particular stress for centres is Unit 6: Microcontroller Systems for Engineers (120 Guided Learning Hours).

Unit 6 will be mandatory for all candidates taking any of the Level 3 Extended Diploma in Engineering titles (e.g. Engineering, Mechanical, Aerospace) from 2020.

Although microcontrollers as a technology has been steadily introduced to the KS4 and KS5 curriculum over the past few years, it features much more prominently in the RQF Qualification. This trend will likely continue in any future T-Levels in the subject as we have written about recently and which you can read about here.

For the teaching of the RQF Qualification, microcontrollers is often a new subject area for many Engineering teachers. Even those who are familiar with teaching traditional electronics may find themselves needing CPD and resources to help them deliver the unit.

Below we give a brief summary of the main requirements of Unit 6: Microcontroller Systems for Engineers:


  • Students will be assessed via an externally set project, the brief will be set by BTEC/Pearson;
  • There are two assessment windows in a year (currently January and June);
  • Students need to plan and develop a prototype of a MCU system to meet the brief;
  • Students are expected to select, use and program a range of digital and analogue input/output components for their assessment project;
  • A list of input/output components, as well as, programming techniques potentially assessed is included in the Unit 6 specification. There are sometimes multiple examples of components for each application;
  • As well as being able to use and program components using a microcontroller, students are required and will be marked on their ability to plan and test their prototypes;
  • The unit 6 specification is, broadly speaking, broken down into electronic components and programming techniques on the one hand, and project development and testing on the other.


That is what we know…

As the RQF specification is relatively new with the first live assessments completed in 2018, many centres are still finding their feet. Especially when it comes to Unit 6.

And so inevitably with a new specification, there are also some ‘unknowns’ which we think may impact how the unit is taught.

We have listed below a non-exhaustive list of relative “unknowns” which will hopefully become clearer as the qualification matures (we have included any response from Pearson where relevant):


  • How many of the inputs/outputs listed in the specification are students expected to use within the assessment?

Pearson has said via its support forums that the list of inputs/outputs assessed within a brief will not cover the whole specification list, and will be fairly limited in the first few years. However Pearson have also said they hope to expand the list of assessed devices as the qualification beds in.


  • Are libraries allowed?

Pearson has said that libraries are allowed reflecting common practice in low-level programming projects. However it is not clear if students are allowed to research and find new libraries within the assessment window, or whether they can only access libraries available to them prior to the release of the assessment brief. We are seeking further clarification from Pearson.


  • Are students expected to do any soldering, and/or produce their prototypes using breadboards?

The Unit 6 specification has a section covering the planning and design of circuit diagrams and schematics, as well as identifying power requirements. It is not clear, from past assessment briefs, whether students are potentially expected to produce a schematic diagram in an assessment, and/or whether they are expected to produce their prototypes using breadboard components. Given that some of the videos released by BTEC show the use of wholly pre-assembled boards, we feel this is an important issue to ‘bottom-out’ so that those students who are taught circuits using breadboards are not disadvantaged over those who use assembled boards; or vice versa that those students taught on assembled boards do no suddenly find themselves faced with the need to wire up circuits and draw circuit diagrams in an assessment task without being adequately prepared. We have asked BTEC for further clarification on this, and will update this post when we have a response.


In summary

As you can see, there are many things which are clear about the new Unit 6 specification such as how it will be assessed and the method of assessment. On the other hand there are still some unknowns which may impact how the unit is taught.

BCA is working with colleges to prepare for the teaching of Unit 6 through training and provision of practical and engaging resources. We are also working with colleges to seek clarifications on some of the ‘unknowns’ so that colleges have greater confidence when planning and teaching the unit.

In the meantime, even with the ‘unknowns’ there are plenty of practical steps colleges can take now to prepare for the delivery of Unit 6. 

In our next article, we suggest practical ways to tackle the MCU unit as well as further considerations to successfully deliver the unit.

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