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Higher is not the only path to happiness

At this time of year, there is a natural and inevitable media focus on GCSE and A-level results. Will students' hard work be rewarded? Will they get the grades they need for university? Many will, some won't. According to Ucas, just under 700,000 people applied for higher education places in 2010. Nearly 490,000 were accepted - so 210,000 (30 per cent) were not.

In addition, Higher Education Statistics Agency figures show that about one in eight people who start a full-time degree will neither gain an award, nor transfer to another institution. Obviously, some disappointed Ucas applicants will try again in later years, and people who drop out of HE might well go back after a break.

But is it such a disaster to change direction? After all, as FE Focus readers are aware, HE is not the only path to success.

Edge's mission is to raise the status of vocational learning wherever and however it takes place. That includes, of course, HE, which offers a huge range of outstanding vocational programmes leading to rewarding careers in all sectors of the modern economy. But with WorldSkills London 2011 just round the corner, we believe there has never been a better time to talk about the achievements of people who succeed through other routes.

Come October, Kerry McStea will be representing the UK in the aircraft maintenance competition. She has already won a gold medal at a UK national skills competition and been named RAF advanced apprentice of the year. She is equally proud of serving her country in Afghanistan.

Kerry's team-mate, Robyn Allen, won't complete her apprenticeship in jewellery and diamond mounting until 2013, but has already shown the talent needed to represent the UK.

Every member of Team UK for WorldSkills London 2011 testifies to the potential of vocational learning. And we shouldn't end there: we need to throw a spotlight on the careers people pursue after they have completed their qualifications. Where are they 10, 20, 30 years later?

Earlier this year, Edge asked YouGov to survey people in the 25-35 age group to find out about the careers of people with level 2 and 3 vocational qualifications. More than a quarter (27 per cent) are in specialist professional or skilled jobs, while a third (34 per cent) have middle or junior management responsibilities. Even at this early stage of their career, 7 per cent already own their own businesses, or are managing directors or partners.

We followed up by interviewing a few of the people who took part in the YouGov survey. Their stories are as interesting as they are varied, from the mother who found a new career as a teaching assistant to the professional dancer and choreographer, and from a self-employed child minder with two level 3 qualifications to a non-destructive test operator in a steel foundry, earning pound;40,000 a year. What they had in common, above all else, was enthusiasm.

A recent Edge survey of middle-income parents suggests nearly three-fifths believe a university education is less valuable than it was 10 years ago. More than a third say they used to want their offspring to go to university but now don't think it is the best option, and a similar proportion believe their son or daughter may have a better chance of success with a vocational qualification.

In years gone by, results season was all about HE. Last year, there were clear signs of a change of mood, with many more features about apprenticeships, FE and vocational qualifications. This year, we must draw on first-hand accounts of competitions, qualifications and careers to prove that there are many paths to success.

Jan Hodges is chief executive of Edge.

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