Young people are making decisions about what they plan to do after leaving formal education as early as Year 7 or 8, with parents, teachers and friends being their preferred information sources, according to a new report, "Choices students make between different post-18 education routes" by the University of Warwick’s Institute for Employment Research for the Department for Education. 

While school pupils who were aiming for university report being well-provided with information, advice, and guidance, young people considering technical or vocational options can feel left out, with school sources perceived as pushing HE as the preferred option for most. 

Report author Peter Dickinson, Senior Research Fellow at IER, said:

“The evidence clearly shows that young people start to make their post-16 choices at an early age.  This means that careers advice and guidance needs to start earlier, even in primary school. This is particularly the case for disadvantaged young people who are less likely to progress into higher education and more likely to become NEET (not in education, employment or training).” 

The study, commissioned to inform the Government’s thinking on post-18 education, also found that:

  • Young people would like careers information in one place and to be able to speak face-to-face with an adviser.
  • Schools which tell people about apprenticeships before Y10 see more young people opting to follow this route post-18.
  • Attainment at age 16 is a key determinant of young people’s post-18 pathways - whether they embark on technical or HE routes - and attainment is closely related to socioeconomic group. 
  • Once young people have made their post-16 choices, they tend to stick to them, and be happy with that decision. 
  • Popular reasons for choosing an apprenticeship include gaining a recognised qualification; being able to do something practical rather than academic; and being able to work while training.
  • Popular reasons for choosing higher education include accessing better job opportunities; following a course of intrinsic interest; and a view of HE as a ‘rite of passage.’
  • Young people on all pathways want to know about course entry requirements and what they will learn.  Young people considering university also want to know about how satisfied previous learners are with their course.
  • Young people make a clear link between higher levels of qualifications and higher financial earnings. University is seen as a good financial investment.
  • Tuition fees have not deterred young people from less well-off backgrounds from applying to HE.
  • Social media is increasingly influential when it comes to choosing which university to apply to, but the traditional Open Day is still a key factor.

Commenting on the report’s findings, Universities Minister Chris Skidmore MP said:

“We must make sure that young people, from all backgrounds, have the information and advice they need to start their career on the right path. That’s why we have made more information available than ever before when it comes to choosing a university and we are making a significant investment through our careers strategy, including £7.5m to improve careers guidance in schools, so young people are aware of all of the options available to them.

“Choosing from the wide range of post-18 options on offer – from high-quality apprenticeships, higher level technical qualifications or going on to university – is one of the most important decisions a young person can make for their future. As the independent panel for the recent report from the Independent Panel highlighted, not all post-18 options are created equal and they have varying degrees of benefit for the future employment opportunities, so it is vital to help prospective students make the best choice for them to succeed.

"We must make sure that young people, from all backgrounds, have the information and advice they need to start their career on the right path. That’s why we have made more information available than ever before when it comes to choosing a university and we are making a significant investment through our careers strategy, including £7.5m to improve careers guidance in schools, so young people are aware of all of the options available to them.”

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The study also found that gender still has a major impact on course choice, with significant differences in the subjects chosen by men and women on both technical and academic post-18 routes. 

In apprenticeships, Hospitality and Catering, Accountancy, and Customer Service were the only subjects with near equal gender balance. Women dominated Hairdressing and Children’s Care, with men more likely to choose stereotypically masculine subjects like Construction and Vehicle Maintenance and Repair.

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