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'A-levels are not for everyone. And they don’t need to be'

Jan Hodges, chief executive of the Edge Foundation, writes:

GCSE results day marks the culmination of many months of hard work for thousands of 16-year-olds and their teachers. Many young people will be delighted with their grades today, while others are less so. However, there is no need for despair as there are more educational options open than ever before.

From the beginning of Year 7, the importance of gaining good GCSE results is made clear to every pupil. Teachers explain how a healthy clutch of A*-C grades will ensure a young person has the opportunity to go on to study for further qualifications, most likely A-levels, and then on to university.

And yes, achieving good GCSEs is, without doubt, important. Good results open doors and give a 16-year-old more options. However, what is changing is the number of alternative routes available at post-16, which are growing in popularity and can lead to career success, just as much as the traditional pathways.

Let’s be clear: sitting in a classroom at school is not for everyone. Some young people do get bored with school and switch off, which can lead to underperformance. This is often not about them being ‘non-academic’, but simply that they are in need of new inspiration. A different environment may well reignite their interests and motivate their learning.

FE colleges offer a vast array of options, including the opportunity to resit key GCSEs, alongside many other courses. They cover a wide range of business and industry sectors and are different from school – treating students as young adults and expecting them to take more responsibility for themselves. For many 16-year olds, this is a far more appealing environment in which to study and an individual’s results may well improve.

A-levels are also not for everyone. And they don’t need to be. There are many routes to success and opting for a more vocational pathway at 16+ is by no means the choice of academic failures. On the contrary, vocational qualifications, such as apprenticeships, can offer favourable employment prospects as well as healthy economic returns.  Research from the 2012 First Steps to Wealth Report illustrates that the lifetime earnings of a graduate are comparable with the lifetime earnings of many former apprentices - for example construction apprentices earn £1,504,000 compared with £1,612,000 for a graduate.

The Edge Foundation carried out some further research among employers last year and almost three quarters (72 per cent) agreed that vocational qualifications are essential for improving the skills of young people. What’s more, over half (53 per cent) of those employers asked felt that vocational qualifications are more valuable than academic qualifications. Fortunately, these sorts of statistics are helping to change people’s perception of vocational education.

So what is available in terms of ‘alternative routes’? Many schools and colleges offer vocational courses. BTECs, City & Guilds, diplomas and OCR nationals are available in a variety of work-related subjects. Many are seen as equivalent to A-levels and a thoroughly valid route through to honours degrees, foundation degrees and apprenticeships.

With the growing number of university technical colleges and career colleges around the country, choice is increasing.  These new institutions are backed by major employers who are keen to ensure they have a skilled future workforce. The UK is facing a growing skills gap across many of its key industries and employers themselves are now getting involved to help address the problem.

Apprenticeships are also a great option. Intermediate-level apprentices work towards work-based qualifications, which are linked to a particular job. Many young people then either go into work or go on to complete a higher apprenticeship. These are developed by employers for employers and offer a new work-based route into professions, which have traditionally been the preserve of graduates.

It’s also worth getting some professional advice. Many FE colleges have dedicated advisers trained to the highest matrix standards who are always required to give independent and impartial advice in the best interests of the learner. They will have a wealth of knowledge and information available and will be aware of wider opportunities in the local area such as jobs and apprenticeships.

They can also advise on where the UK is experiencing the greatest skill gaps and the key sectors that are growing and where you would be most likely to have the best employment opportunities.

High quality vocational education is essential to our economy. We need to recognise that young people have different strengths /abilities and they must be encouraged to choose a learning path that matches their needs. Whatever your results today - whether you have done better or worse than expected –  see this as an exciting opportunity to choose your own unique path to career success.

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