Martin Whittaker advises careers teachers on some new routes available beyond the world of re-sits and university.
When faced with having to make important decisions about their careers at 16, many young people are still choosing A-levels and a degree above vocational qualifications and training. And most parents still have a high expectation that their children will go to university, according to the British Social Attitudes 2002 survey, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research.
Those questioned in the study were asked whether they would recommend a 16-year-old to stay on to do A-levels, study full-time for a vocational qualification or leave school and train through a job. Half of them chose conventional A-levels, but only one in 10 chose vocational qualifications - and the same proportion chose leaving school to get work-based training.
The rest said it would depend on the 16-year-old's abilities.
Overall, the survey's findings confirmed the rigid class system at work in the qualifications structure - which, the study concluded, shows "a system within which, in the public's eyes at least, vocational awards simply do not have parity with academic ones".
With the advent of university top-up fees and the prospect of heavy debt early in your career, going to university is not an option to be taken lightly.
Graham Hoyle, chief executive of the Association of Learning Providers, says the development of new routes into work-based learning will widen choice for young people and break down snobbery and misconceptions about the low status of vocational training.
"A lot of former apprentices are now running companies around the country, and they talk with great pride at having started life as an apprentice," says Mr Hoyle.
"But somehow we haven't grabbed hold of parents, who still think that the only route is A-levels and degrees."
Work-based learning is a complex and developing sector. Below is a brief guide.
These allow you to learn and earn, build knowledge and skills and gain qualifications on the job. There are various levels available, although they all lead to National Vocational Qualifications (NVQs), Key Skills qualifications and in most cases a technical certificate such as BTEC or City Guilds.
They used to be called Modern Apprenticeships, but the "modern" was dropped in May when the qualifications were relaunched by Education Secretary Charles Clarke and Chancellor Gordon Brown.
The reformed versions include: l New Young Apprenticeships for 14 to 16-year-olds. These offer an opportunity for pupils to spend up to two days a week in the workplace learning a trade. They became available in September for those at the start of Year 10, though initially they will involve just 1,000 students.
* A pre-apprenticeship scheme which is based on the Entry to Employment (E2E) programme (see below). This scheme is intended for young people who are not ready to begin an apprenticeship or who may be disengaged from learning.
* Opening up apprenticeships to adults by scrapping the age limit of 25 which was set for the Modern Apprenticeship.
Entry to Employment (E2E)
This scheme was launched in August 2003 after pilot projects in 11 areas. This is a programme for young people who are not yet ready to enter an apprenticeship or other form of level 2 (GCSE-equivalent) provision.
According to the Department for Education and Skills, 50,000 young people were expected to gain access to the E2E programme this summer.
These are new higher education work-based qualifications, designed in conjunction with employers to help solve skills shortages at the higher technician level.
These are provided by various universities in partnership with further education colleges. There are no particular entry requirements - the institution offering the course will decide on eligibility, and often the relevant experience could count as much as qualifications.
Depending on the subject, a full-time course could take two years, while studying part-time could take three or four years.
Foundation degrees are flexible and can be delivered through distance learning or in the workplace. Students can progress to a full honours degree with a further 12-15 months' further study.
A New curriculumat Key Stage 4
From this September changes to the curriculum for students in key stage 4 should give them much more freedom to choose programmes of study that meet their particular needs and strengths. Among the changes there is a statutory requirement that schools include work-related learning in the curriculum. This includes provision for all students to learn from direct experiences of work to help them to develop employability skills.
Increased flexibility for 14 to 16-year-olds
This innovation enables schools and further education colleges to collaborate, giving young people the opportunity to study at college or with a training provider for one or two days a week - in order to work towards vocational and work-related qualifications.
More than 60 per cent of students taking part in this programme are working towards at least one GCSE in a vocational subject. Vocational GCSEs were introduced in 2002 in subjects including applied art and design, applied business and leisure and tourism.
A new diploma framework
This new structure has been proposed by the former chief inspector of schools Mike Tomlinson's working group for 14-19 reform. It sets out to tackle a number of fundamental weaknesses, including low post-16 participation, an unwieldy curriculum and assessment system, and fragmented vocational qualifications.
The proposed diploma is organised around four levels - entry, foundation, intermediate and advanced - and would aim to develop workplace skills, including communication, ICT, problem-solving and working with others. The diploma is also designed to bring greater parity between vocational and academic learning.
The case in Wales
Apprenticeships are the main work-based learning route for school-leavers in Wales. There is also a preparatory programme for unemployed people, aimed mainly at those who have left school with no qualifications.
The National Assembly along with Education Learning Wales (ELWa) has also set up a new initiative called the modern skills diploma for adults. This offers opportunities for the over-25s to improve their skills at NVQ level 3 (A-level equivalent) and above.
Wales is considering a more skills-based approach to the curriculum across all key stages. The qualifications, curriculum and assessment agency (ACCAC) proposes a greater focus on skills for the workplace, including communication, numeracy, problem-solving and teamwork skills.
Opportunities in Scotland
In Scotland, there are several programmes offering work-based learning, including an apprenticeship scheme.
Scotland also has a scheme known as Skillseekers, which encourages employers to train 16 to 24-year-olds towards a recognised workplace qualification by helping with the cost of training.
All participants in the Skillseekers scheme work towards Scottish or National Vocational Qualifications.
Scottish Enterprise also runs two programmes: Get Ready for Work supports 16 to 18-year-olds towards gaining a job, further training or a college course and gives them a training allowance; the Training for Work scheme provides training support for unemployed adults who are 25 or older.