Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

During GCSE results day 2019, some figures in business made it clear they want to see more 16-year-olds making the move to apprenticeships rather than A-levels.

“We need to see more young people choosing vocational pathways,” said Andrea Bull, head next generation marketing at Make UK, in a statement hoping to encourage those awaiting GCSE results to consider apprenticeship programmes.

Mike Cherry, national chairman of The Federation of Small Businesses, also highlighted how remaining on the purely academic route isn’t right for all GCSE students, saying:

“Each year pupils will make critical decisions about how they intend to further their education, which for some will mean going onto study A-levels. But while that may suit some pupils entering Sixth Form, it doesn’t help others who may thrive far better elsewhere.”

There was also plenty of talk of the increasing exam pressure young people face, further making the case that for many, moving to a different form of education and training would be beneficial rather than staying on the ‘classrooms and exams’ track of A-levels.

The National Education Union, for example, polled more than 600 members who taught GCSE subjects in England. More than seven out of 10 said their students’ mental health had worsened since new exams were introduced.

Meanwhile, Childline revealed there were 1,141 counselling sessions delivered to children and teenagers in 2018 to 2019, an increasing by more than 50% since 2014 to 2015 – a fifth of these therapy sessions took place in August, when students receive GCSE and A-level results.

The Girlguiding charity reveal the results of its 2019 Girls’ Attitudes Survey on the eve of GCSE results day. It showed that the majority of girls worry poor exam grades will ruin their future opportunities in life. More than half of girls (52%) say exam pressures affect how happy they are, yet four in five say they don’t get the support they need to manage exam-related stress.

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Megan, 17, a spokesperson for Girlguiding, said:

“I know this feeling all too well; I sat my GCSEs last year and I spiralled under the stress. I would often cry myself to sleep, choosing between showering or taking another practice test for physics.”

Despite the difficulty many young people experience under an exam-based system like GCSEs, and the need for more 16-year-olds to take up apprenticeships, the majority of those going on to take Level 3 qualifications (about three in five) are doing so via A-levels rather than moving on to a different form of training and education.

To see a genuine shift in careers advice, everyone needs to be on board

In the whole of the Guardian’s live report of GCSE results day, for example, there was just one mention of a 16-year-old school leaver going on to an apprenticeship.

This anecdotal reporting plays out in the statistics too. While 82% more people aged 25 and above are now doing higher-level apprenticeships at Level 4 and above, apprenticeship starts for 16- to-18-year-olds continue to fall, and Level 2 starts (one of the key levels for those leaving school after GCSEs) have dropped by more than 50% since the apprenticeship reforms were introduced in May 2017.

It seems doubtful – given the stress and angst the system clearly causes for many – that 16-year-olds are so excited about another two years of classroom learning and exams they won’t consider any other option.

What seems more likely is that the people who matter – parents, schools and employers – aren’t promoting apprenticeships as a post-GCSE option as best they could.

This could start earlier in the classroom: Talking about GCSE results as a potential bridge to Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships as well as A-levels and jobs from the word go, rather than later in the process; explaining how a Level 2 apprenticeship could now lead to Levels 3, 4 and above, all with a salary; the job prospects and employability of apprentices (with their hands-on work experience) compared to young people who only have exam results under their belts.

Teachers could be promoting the advantages of Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships to parents too, again early on in their children’s education, and presented as an equal to the option of A-levels. But they can only do this if they’re sufficiently knowledgeable about these advantages, and about the range of Level 2 and 3 apprenticeships on offer.

Employers could help them – and help themselves secure the interest of students considering leaving school after GCSEs – do this by engaging with schools earlier.

The School Leaver Conference is just one way that employers and education professionals can come together to improve their knowledge and awareness of the early careers landscape, and foster new relationships and existing partnerships. If we want more young people to see the value of options other than A-levels, we must try harder.

Emma Finamore, Editor, AllAboutSchoolLeavers.co.uk

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