AFTER the stress of exams and results, the half a million young people who sat GCSEs this summer now face the question of what to do next.
In the past, the majority left school at 16 to learn a trade and to help support their families. But the Eighties and early Nineties saw a sea-change in attitudes. In 1980 only one in five pupils decided to continue full-time study after their GCSEs. Last year more than two-thirds did.
The evidence suggests that the remaining 30 per cent should not be too hasty in ditching their textbooks. Official statistics show that qualifications make a real difference to employment prospects.
One in eight of those with no qualifications are out of work - compared to just over one in 30 of those with a degree. People with low grade GCSEs are more likely to be unemployed than those whose highest qualification is an A-level. And one in five who leave school at 16 can expect to be unemployed.
Yet despite this evidence and the increasing influence of employment on young people's course choices, reported in The TES last week, staying-on rates have failed to continue their steep rise of the early Nineties.
And to ministers' concern, Britain remains close to the bottom of the international league table of post-16 learners. Only Portugal, Greece and Hungary have fewer 15 to 19-year-olds in full-time education.
But whatever the wishes of politicians and teachers, it is unlikely that they will ever persuade all young people to stay on in full-time education. Work is an attractive option for the many who find school stifling.
Interestingly, those with trade apprenticeships are less likely to be out of work than those with A-levels (although more likely than those with a degree). The key is high-quality training (see table above).
The Government has recognised the need for young people to continue to learn while working - both in its New Deal programme for the unemployed and in forthcoming legislation giving study leave to 16 and 17-year-olds in employment. This year for the first time all 16 and 17-year-olds who do not have the equivalent of five GCSEs at grade C will be entitled to time off for training jointly funded by employers and the Government.
Ian Bourne, acting chief executive of the Careers Service National Association, says young people should not take a job which does not give them the chance to learn. "We are working with training and enterprise councils to ensure that all employment for young people incorporates training," he said.
But despite government urging, employer-funded training for young people is on the decline. Only one in 70 16-year-olds now receives employer-funded training - less than half the figure of a decade ago.
In some occupations such as catering it is possible - even desirable - to learn on the job and gain qualifications along the way. But others - such as management and sales - which were traditionally open to school-leavers willing to work their way up are becoming increasingly dominated by graduates.
Pupils who have their career chosen should make sure they know the necessary requirements. These are not always obvious. For instance to get into medical school it is chemistry not biology which is the "must-have" A-level.
And the advice does not just go for careers which involve higher education. Those wanting to go into secretarial work will get nowhere without keyboard and computer skills.
Those who do decide to stay on in education can choose between school and college and between academic and vocational courses. More than half of those who do stay on go to a sixth form or general further education college, the rest remain at school.
Colleges are popular with many young people because they allow students freedoms - such as no dress code and permission to leave the campus during free periods - which are not on offer at most school sixth forms. Schools tend to be popular with parents as they are perceived to get better results - although in fact specialist sixth-form colleges do similarly well.
Although some school sixth forms provide a wide range of subject courses, many are restricted because of their size. Colleges also tend to offer vocational courses as well as the traditional academic A-levels. It seems that vocational courses such as Modern Apprenticeships and general national vocational qualifications are finally overcoming Britain's traditional prejudice against non-academic study.
"Employers are now waking up to the benefits of vocational qualifications. They have not yet reached the same status as they have in some European countries but things are getting better," said Mr Bourne. "It is very much down to the individual what they choose. Our main advice is don't panic."
Which job, which course? Centre pages