Decisions, Decisions!

20th September 2019

Amid the government’s launch of a brand new, prestigious, vocational qualification and urgent calls for a more technically skilled young workforce, Lisa Botwright explores the A-Level alternatives open to today’s teens…

At every stage of a child’s education there are choices to be made. When they’re young, it’s our job as parents to make those decisions… which nursery should they attend, which primary school? Will they go private? As the children get older, choices are made more collaboratively – your 14-year-old will want to have a big say in which GCSE subjects they choose, I’m sure.

At 16, options widen even further. In line with government regulations (, young people at this age must either remain in full time education, or start an apprenticeship or traineeship. This means a big decision between an academic route or a vocational one. Should they stay on at school and go into sixth form, or apply to a further education college? Perhaps your teen feels ready to venture into the world of work and wants to start exploring training opportunities. With such a wide range of options available, the emphasis is on providing the right amount of support in navigating these choices, and helping your child find the direction that’s best for them.

A-Levels are widely seen as the gold standard for post-16 educational attainment; they’re held in high regard by universities and employers and for many children they are exactly the right path – but not necessarily for all. Author, speaker and international advisor Ken Robinson, who was knighted in 2003 for his services to education, is a vocal opponent to many of the recent curriculum and exam changes in British schools. (Students now sit exams at the end of two years of study for most A-Level, as well as GCSE subjects, instead of a mix of coursework and modular exams throughout.) Sir Ken argues that “our school systems are now a matrix of organisational rituals and intellectual habits that do not adequately reflect the great variety of talents of the students who attend them. Because they conflict with these systems, too many students think that they are the problem; that they are not intelligent, or must have difficulties in learning.” In short, many young people are put off by the high-stakes emphasis on memory, and the very specific academic skills demanded by A-Levels, which fail to do justice to the kind of intelligence that would flourish in a more hands-on learning environment.

Helga Armstrong, a Chorleywood-based Career Guidance Coach, who has worked in a variety of school settings and now offers support to young people and their parents on a freelance basis, tells me: “In my experience, young people are all amazingly talented; I’ve not met a student that isn’t talented in their field – but not everyone likes doing exams, and even where they love their subject, some just aren’t good at revising and at remembering information.”

She believes that children should think about what ‘gets them out of bed’ every morning. “They must study what they love, as this will motivate them to do their absolute best and will open doors in those fields.” She recognises that 16 is a tough time to leave school. “Young people want to do what their friends are doing, and if you’re happy where they are and their school’s style of teaching suits them, then that’s a good enough reason to stay on.” Nonetheless, she’s very positive about the myriad of ways that young people can achieve their goals without studying for A-Levels. If a teenager wants to be a forensic scientist, for example, but is worried they won’t get a high enough grade in Chemistry, they could opt for a Science BTEC – but if they have a specific future degree course in mind, do encourage them to check with the admissions team of their preferred university that the content of the BTEC is appropriate, as this can vary widely according to different providers. Similarly, a budding social worker might look out for a relevant BTEC, such as ‘Public Services’, over Sociology, Psychology and History A-Levels. “Do your research so that you understand what’s out there,” Helga advises.

Exploring all the options is especially essential for an apprenticeship, since there is no single central body or provider that oversees them (unlike the way that UCAS does for university applications), so information has to be gleaned from lots of different platforms. It’s also important to be aware that there might be a certain amount of bias within your child’s school regarding their next steps. In research conducted in 2006 by the Department for Education and Skills, teaching staff in more than half of the schools involved ‘readily acknowledged that when presenting post-16 options, the emphasis was primarily on what could be done within their own sixth form’.

Broadly speaking, there are four different kinds of apprenticeships: intermediate (Level 2) and advanced (Level 3), which are available to 16-year-olds and accessed with GCSEs; and then advanced, higher level and even (highly competitive) degree apprenticeships available to 18-year-olds via different vocational or academic paths, depending on the industry or sector.

Mark*, 16, from Croxley Green, left school immediately after his GCSEs to begin a job in a car finance company as an Accounts Assistant four days a week, with the fifth day at college to work towards a BTEC Level 2. His aim is to eventually qualify as an accountant. He has no regrets and tells me he feels “lucky to have this opportunity”. The only downside he can see is that he will have “less time off” than his full-time student friends, but because he is earning, he can focus on “planning exciting holidays” instead.

Londoner Jessie, on the other hand, did move on to sixth form – academically bright, she studied English and ICT, among other subjects, but “struggled to see end results” to her work. She’s now a Digital Marketing Apprentice working towards a Level 3 Digital Marketing qualification, and along the way has also gained a Level 3 City and Guilds qualification in Coding, as well as a Level 4 Chartered Institute of Marketing qualification. “The best thing,” she tells me with evident pride, is that “apprenticeships allow you to gain your qualifications while earning a real wage, which is fantastic”; what is most important to her, though, is that “all the theory I’m learning, I’m putting it into practice and truly understanding it, rather than just memorising it for an end of year exam.” Her chosen path isn’t necessarily an easy option: “I won’t put up a front and pretend it isn’t hard, because it is. This is my first full time job, and I’m still not used to the whole nine-to-five thing,” but she’s glad she took the opportunity and is keen to “keep expanding my own personal business and become the entrepreneur I’ve always wanted to be.”

A brand new vocational post-16 option, that promises to “provide a high-quality, technical alternative to A-Levels” (according to Theresa May back in May 2018) is also on the horizon. T-Levels, which will be phased in from September 2020, are designed to put technical (hence the ‘T’) education on an equal footing with academia. Each T-Level will be recognised as the equivalent of three A-Levels and will focus on the skills required for particular occupations, rather than the academic skills currently delivered by A-Levels, but with no less rigour or challenge. The first courses will be ‘Construction’, ‘Digital’, and ‘Education and Childcare’, with a further 22 courses to be rolled out in stages from 2021, covering sectors such as Finance, Engineering and the creative industries. Each course will include a three-month work placement, alongside a curriculum created by expert panels of employers. Theresa May called it “the most significant reform to advanced technical education in 70 years” and a “new, gold standard qualification” open to teenagers “whichever route they choose”. Supporters claim it is an urgently needed way to “build a skilled workforce for the future”.

Despite an unprecedented amount of political manoeuvring ever since the T-Levels concept was announced, their introduction appears to remain at the forefront of Conservative educational policy, with current Education Secretary Gavin Williamson going on record as saying that “technical and vocational education has played second fiddle to traditional academic options for too long” and anticipating the time, three years hence, when “the look and feel of results day will be very different, with students getting their T-Level results [and] celebrating their hard work alongside those getting their A-Levels.” Not all schools and colleges will sign up to offer T-Levels, however, so if you think this approach would suit your child, do undertake some research to find a local provider.

Society and technology are changing at such a rapid rate that the days of gaining a qualification at 16 and then settling into a career for life are long over. Traditional working patterns have been eroded in favour of more fluid, fragmented and flexible jobs – and government projections suggest this trend will only continue: research predicts that by 2030, the job market will be characterised by greater movement between careers and across sectors. Millennials, who currently make up over a third of the workforce, already largely expect to follow ‘portfolio careers’ and to move on from job to job to build up relevant skills and experience. Helga observes that “all young people are going to be lifelong learners and must continue upskilling because the skillset needed for future employability is just continuously changing”.

Big decisions are hard to make for anyone – especially for a 16-year old unsure exactly which professional path to follow. But the idea that going down a vocational route too early can narrow your choices seems to be increasingly outdated. Employers are often just as interested in evidence of commitment – a motivated can-do attitude, for example, rather than a long list of academic grades. Demonstrating a willingness to learn and move forward – in whatever way that suits the individual – is now the hallmark of a good CV for many career opportunities.

While teenagers face a great deal more adversity and competition than previous generations, especially in the context of our current political climate and economic uncertainty – perhaps there is also a conversely refreshing freedom in the idea that careers can evolve and develop via different routes, meaning there’s less pressure to get everything right first time.

Helpful Links:


BTEC Diplomas:

T Levels:


Find Your Local