What next after GCSEs? A guide to apprenticeships, BTECs and NVQs

Hetty Cunningham
A-levels are not the only route post-GCSE - Alamy

GCSE Results Day has arrived. In August, thousands of students across the country will be considering their options for the future.

Although A-levels remain the traditional route taken for post-16 education, there are several alternatives that students can consider. Here is our guide to apprenticeships, BTECs, NVQs, and traineeships.

Key resources | GCSE Results Day

Apprenticeships

What is an apprenticeship?

Apprenticeships combine study with practical training on the job, and provide an excellent alternative to A-levels.

  • Students are thrown immediately into working-life, able to learn directly from experienced staff.
  • They will acquire job-specific skills in their chosen industry, whilst gaining a qualification in the process.
  • Apprenticeships are paid: companies such as BAE Systems, for example, offer a starting salary of £34k on completion.

"Many students prefer a more practical learning experience which might not be possible through a classroom based A-level qualification," says Tom Laws, the education and awareness co-ordinator of Serco Services.  

Instead, he says, an apprenticeship is "a way for young people to earn while learning in a real job, gaining a real qualification and a real future." 

Apprenticeships have certainly experienced a surge in popularity recently. In 2014/15, 499,900 students started an apprenticeship in England, 59,500 more than the previous year. And with the Government's new apprenticeship levy due to come into force in 2017, the number on offer will only increase.

What level will I study at?

Students can undertake an apprenticeship at a number of different levels.

  • Intermediate - the level that post-GCSE students should expect to start at. 
  • Advanced - the equivalent of two A-levels.
  • Higher – which can extend to qualifications at levels 6 (BA/BSc) and 7 (MA/MSc).

Students can apply for an apprenticeship in a variety of sectors, including arts and media, engineering and manufacturing technologies, and education and training. 

Apprenticeships provide a simpler, debt-free route into the working world

"92 per cent of apprentices say their career prospects have improved," says Olly Newton, the director of policy and research at the Edge Foundation.  Apprenticeships provide a simpler, debt-free route into the working world.  

For further information, visit  gov.uk/apply- apprenticeship or to  discuss your options with an impartial careers adviser, call the National Careers Service on 0800 100 900

Traineeships

For students not yet ready for an apprenticeship, a traineeship provides an attractive alternative.

Programmes last from six weeks to six months, and offer high quality work placements, work-preparation training and support in both English and Maths.

Traineeships are usually targeted at school leavers, struggling to secure an apprenticeship. Yet, they may also appeal to students with limited work place experience. They are generally unpaid – though travel and meal expenses are covered – and are usually offered in sectors such as engineering, construction, design or accountancy.

Student at a computer

Programmes provide trainees with insight into the work place, contact with local employers and interview practice. 

At the end of the work placement, if a role is available, trainees will often be given the opportunity to interview for the position, or a reference and an exit interview will generally be given

Traineeships boost an individual’s CV, providing a suitable foundation for an apprenticeship or, ultimately, a job.

For more information on how to apply, click here

BTECs

What is a BTEC qualification?

The ‘Business and Technology Education Council’ award was first introduced in 1984 and continues to be offered throughout the UK at all levels, from pre-GCSE to degree equivalent.

  • BTECs are vocational and work-related courses which allow students to progress towards higher education.
  • The award adopts a practical approach to learning, without omitting any of the necessary theory on the subject.
  • Instead of following the exam format of A-levels, the system assesses candidates in a practical situation. 
  • A 'BTEC' can be taken alongside, or instead of, A-levels and candidates can expect to complete the course in one or two years, depending on whether they study full or part-time.

Julie Robinson, general secretary of ISC, says that the "continued strength" of the BTEC shows that the "well-trodden path of GCSE, A-level and university doesn't suit all young people".

 She adds that the design of the BTEC provides "a genuine route into the workplace" as it is "valued by employers" in a wide range of industries. These include construction, health and social care, as well as travel and tourism.

KEY INFORMATION | What are BTEC qualifications?

Crucially, studying for a BTEC does not eliminate the possibility of going to university.

As Robinson remarks, the "door is left firmly open", with universities increasingly recognising the value of a BTEC qualification. In fact, it provides a "preferred stepping stone to university" for certain courses, including nursing and midwifery, for example, both of which require a degree.

A relatively small number of independent school pupils study for a BTEC. However, some of the schools which offer the qualification are among the most academic in the country, for instance Brighton College in East Sussex. 

What level will I study at?

Students who have just completed their GCSEs should look to start a level 3 BTEC. They must have at least five GCSE A*-C grades, including English language, maths and science.

The highest level 3 BTEC available, the Extended Diploma, is the equivalent of three A-levels.

Technical Baccalaureate

Although not officially a qualification in its own right, the new ‘TechBacc’ is a mark of vocational achievement available for students aged 16-19. It is specifically geared towards those who are interested in pursuing a technical career.

The scheme was first introduced in 2014 and is comprised of three key components: 

  • At least one Department for Education approved Tech Level.
  • Level 3 maths qualification (such as AS level maths).
  • An extended project (EP) qualification, which develops students’ skills in writing, research and self-motivation.

The Tech Level equips students with specialist knowledge and skills in various occupations, ranging from engineering to computing and hospitality to accountancy. The EP offers students the chance to create research projects, with an industry-focus relevant to their vocational programme.

The TechBacc will increase a student's employability and aid their applications to apprenticeships and jobs.

Students must have already achieved grades A*-C in GCSE maths and English.

For more information on the Technical Baccalaureate, click here

National Vocational Qualifications

Finally, NVQs are work-based awards that come in various forms. They’re judged on National Occupational Standards outlining the ‘competencies’ that are expected by workers in any job role.

Candidates must therefore meet these ‘competencies’ in order to gain the award.

NVQs do not have to be completed in a specific amount of time. As a result, school and college students should expect to undertake an NVQ alongside a work placement or part-time job.

NVQs help extend existing skills students may already have in a specific industry. A candidate would begin an NVQ in catering, for example, to improve their role as a waiter or waitress.

There are no age limits and no special entry requirements.

Usually, schools and colleges will offer either level 2 qualifications – the equivalent of grades A*-C at GCSE – or level 3 – equating to an A-level, also at grade A*-C. They’re designed to allow students to learn in a way which suits them; providing knowledge relevant for job applications in sectors such as business management, hair and beauty, and construction and property.

For more information on NVQs, click here

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