'A well-chosen vocational programme could open more doors than a poorly chosen A level'

Students should consider both academic and vocational qualifications, according to the chief executive of Activate Learning

Sally Dicketts

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Figures released last month by university admissions service Ucas show that the number of students enrolling for A levels is set to increase by around 4,000, against a decline in enrolments to vocational programmes.

Commenting on the figures, Ucas chief executive Mary Curnock Cook suggested that students following an A-level pathway had the inherent advantage of keeping their future career options open.

There is a long-held belief that choosing a vocational programme at 16, such as health and social care, means you are locked into a career in that sector for life. It is a concern we see shared by parents as they come to college open days to explore their child’s next steps.

Transferable skills

So is an A level in geography really better than its vocational equivalent at equipping young people with the transferable skills required for career success?

While we have worked hard to help students understand how their choices can influence a future career path, the reality is that most employers are looking for transferrable soft skills rather than subject specific or technical ones.

Therefore the programme that develops a young person’s confidence, self-esteem, curiosity, independence and communication skills will be the one that opens the most doors to a successful future career.

That programme could be a well-designed and well-delivered A-level or vocational programme.

Academic v vocational

The subject choices our children make at 16 won’t define them for the rest of their lives, but the quality of that learning experience may well do.

Young people choosing their next step after GCSEs should really consider two things:

  1. Will the programme equip me with the skills and experiences required to build a fulfilling future?
  2. Is this route best suited to me and my preferred style of learning?

My concern about the growing number of young people choosing A levels is that not all these students will be best suited to the A-level approach to learning. In my time in further education, I have seen many examples of students, predicted to achieve Cs and Ds at A level, come out of a two-year BTEC programme with three distinction stars. That isn’t because BTEC is an easier option, but because the applied learning style engages them in ways that their previous education did not.

With universities now accepting students with A levels or vocational equivalents, the reality is that a well-chosen vocational programme could open more doors than a poorly chosen A-level. Three years later, as employers are inundated with job applications from graduates, it will be those with the right personal attributes who will win out.

Sally Dicketts is chief executive of Activate Learning. She tweets as @SallyDicketts

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